In shul this past shabbat - Feb 25 2017 - I spoke about this topic. Here is a summary of my remarks.
The portion today - Mishpatim - contained a civil law code. The people of Israel had just heard God speak the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai which provided them with the moral and religious foundation they needed to become the nation of Israel. The portion Mishpatim provided them with more details as to how to transform their interpersonal relationships into an ethical and religious covenant with God.
Therefore it's fascinating that the very first series of mandates in the portion concern how to own and treat a slave. This group of people that had just left Egypt where they were enslaved for over 200 years now learn that it's ok to own a slave! How could that be?
Rabbis over the centuries have debated this issue especially in light of the fact that slavery is outlawed in the US and around the world. There is another law found in the same portion which can serve as an example as to how Torah law can be reinterpreted. We learn that when one injures another - e.g. knocks out a tooth - the injured party has the right to knock out his attacker's tooth, as it says, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Even though literally understood the Torah seems to command this physical punishment, the Rabbis 1800 years ago understood this to mean financial compensation. The value of the tooth or eye that has been injured is to be paid to the victim. Simply put, if an ethical teaching in the Torah goes against our own ethical understanding today, we have the right and duty to reinterpret the text.
Imagine what the debate in America must have been like before the Civil War. Northern states had abolished slavery and Southern states stubbornly persisted in maintaining it. How did Rabbis respond to the impending Civil War? Did they support slavery or were they opposed?
President Buchanan declared a day of fasting and prayer on January 4, 1861 in order to forestall or even prevent war from breaking out. On that day Rabbi Morris Raphall of Bnai Jeshurun in New York City gave a sermon in which he supported the institution of slavery. He claimed that the curse of Ham (Noah's son) by Noah (chapter 9 of Genesis) that his descendants would be destined to be enslaved was meant to teach that the African people (descended from Ham) are meant to be slaves. It can't be helped and we have the right, Rabbi Raphall taught, to own slaves.
Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai in Baltimore gave a vociferous response. Rabbi Einhorn claimed that Noah's curse was never meant to be understood as a prophecy, dooming the people of Africa to slavery, but rather as a curse recited in a fit of anger to Ham directly. The over-arching principle in the Torah is that God created all human beings in His likeness, therefore all people are meant to be free.
This rabbinic debate is one of thousands of scholarly debates rabbis have had about matters of Jewish law and thought. From the Mishnah to today rabbis argue points of law and claim that a text is meant to be understood literally or figuratively. Einhorn and Raphall were continuing a long and revered tradition.
But the more important point is that Rabbis Raphall and Einhorn felt they had the right and obligation to speak from their pulpits about a moral issue which was highly politicized in their day. Raphall gave a pro-slavery sermon in a state that had already abolished slavery! And Einhorn gave an abolitionist sermon in a slave state! Shortly after his sermon Einhorn's printing press (for the Sinai journal which he published from the synagogue) was destroyed by his congregants and he was run out of town. (See this article for a detailed description of these events and the sermons.)
I feel that it is my responsibility to speak about issues that arise in our community. These issues will always be understood by me through a Jewish lens and I will always share and teach my opinion about them. I know, like Raphall and Einhorn, that not everyone will agree with me. So be it. However, I will continue to share my teachings and will always encourage civil and honest debate about them. These issues may be understood as political - due to how the current presidential administration deals with them - but I nonetheless will still comment on them Jewishly. I hope that I won't be run out of town as Einhorn was but rather I hope that we all will be comfortable debating these issues in a safe and friendly environment.