Harvard, Slavery and Judaism – WSJ

An inflectional table from Judah Monis’ ‘A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue’.


Courtesy Museum of the Bible Collection. All rights reserved. © Museum of the Bible, 2022.

The first Jew at Harvard was a slaveholder. It’s the bomb, as far as I can see, buried in the appendix to the new report “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” published by the university this week.

The report’s “list of people enslaved by prominent Harvard affiliates” includes the “slaves” Cuffy and Cicely, owned by Judah Monis. Monis lived from 1683 to 1764 and was a teacher of Hebrew at Harvard College from 1722 to 1760. While studying this article, I discovered a third possible slave, “my Negro child Moreah”, mentioned in Monis’ will from 1760.

I first came across Moni’s name more than ten years ago while working on a biography of the American revolutionary leader Samuel Adams. Part of the required curriculum for Harvard students from 1735 to 1755 was the study of Hebrew grammar from a textbook written by Monis. It may seem like an obscure detail, but it is of historical significance because Harvard students in that era included Samuel Adams, his cousin and future President John Adams, and their other signatories to the Declaration of Independence John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, William Williams , and William Ellery.

Monis had converted to Christianity from Judaism a month before joining the Harvard faculty. In a 2018 article for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Jon D. Levenson writes that conversion had been a condition of employment. The baptism took place in Harvard Yard. “Although there has long been doubt about Monis’ sincerity in converting, I’m sure he was quite sincere in his desire for a Harvard professorship,” writes Mr. Levenson.

The footnotes in Harvard’s slavery report show, as part of the evidence for Monis’ slave team, the records of the Church of Christ in Cambridge. As a Jewish reader, I am tempted to interpret this as a kind of poetic justice in which Monis is posthumously punished for having given up our faith.

However, it is a little too convenient. If it had turned out that Monis secretly operated an underground railway, voluntarily set his slaves free, or advocated abolition, I would gladly demand him from the Jews. While traditional Judaism, like other religions, wrinkles the noses of those who adopt alternative faiths, it also still considers everyone a Jew, like Monis, who was born of a Jewish mother.

The question that goes beyond pure sectarian interest is what the news about Monis means for the story that historians have told about the influence of Christian Hebrewism in the American Revolution. Samuel Adams described the British as “taskmasters” and compared the American revolutionaries to the children of Israel who fled slavery in Egypt. In a speech to the Continental Congress in 1777, Samuel Adams noted that they had told the world about their determination “to die free instead of living as slaves.” The Declaration of Independence spoke of how all human beings are created equal, “gifted by their Creator” with the right to liberty.

It is one thing to reckon with hypocrisy in the stories of plantation-owning Virginia people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. That’s old news. But Samuel Adams’ Harvard Hebrew professor? It hits closer to home for those who consider Boston to be the cradle of freedom.

No doubt some will see it as further proof that the entire company – Harvard from the 18th century, the American Revolution, the Bible – was rotten to the core. But there is an alternative reading.

If the future American revolutionaries were diligent students of the Hebrew Monis taught, they would have been able to analyze with some care the text of Exodus. At Sinai, after God identifies himself as having “led you out of Egypt, the house of slavery,” he issues the command that the children of Israel obey the Sabbath in part by not letting their own slaves work on the seventh day.

In other words, by experiencing the irreconcilable opposition between the reality of slave ownership and the ideal of freedom, the American revolutionaries were not unlike the children of Israel. They followed in their footsteps.

If Monis’ conscience was not sufficiently touched by the Hebrew text to do good, his disciples and their disciples would do better with time. It does not absolve him of guilt. But let it not be forgotten that his students used the Hebrew he taught to help create, in America, a story of freedom that certainly ranks with the Bible as one of the great slavery-overthrown tales of the time.

Mr. Stoll is the executive editor of Education Next, based at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Published in print on April 29, 2022.

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