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Does the Torah Approve of Slavery?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 7, 2013)
Topics: Mishpatim

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Does the Torah approve of slavery? Consider what Wikipedia says on the topic of Jews and Slavery: “Judaism’s religious texts contain numerous laws governing the ownership and treatment of slaves… Jews continued to own slaves during the 16th through 18th centuries, and ownership practices were still governed by Biblical and Talmudic laws.” And perhaps most troubling: “In the modern era, when the abolitionist movement sought to outlaw slavery, supporters of slavery used the laws to provide religious justification for the practice of slavery.” These statements are completely accurate. Slavery is an institution accepted and regulated in the Torah, with laws in Shulkhan Arukh, and was an accepted reality within the Jewish community until it became an anathema throughout the world. What do these facts tell us?

The most obvious conclusion to draw is that the Torah approves of slavery, and the only reason we do not practice it is due to the (non-Torah based) norms of the larger society. Is this in fact the case?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the Torah only accepts slavery as a deeply entrenched societal institution. Remember, slavery existed for thousands of years after the Torah was given, and only was legally eradicated (at least in Western countries) 150 years ago. So when the Torah was given, slavery wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But accepting a reality is not the same as approving of it. The first question to ask, then, is not whether the institution is a taken-for-granted reality in the Torah, but rather what the Torah has to say about slavery that was different? What was the Torah trying to do to this institution?

Framed thusly, quite a different answer emerges. At Mt. Sinai, the first words of God that burst forth from the heavens identified God as the liberator of slaves: “I am the Lord your God Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” Our parsha, Mishpatim, which constitutes the list of laws that immediately follow, opens similarly with the freeing of slaves: “If one purchases a Hebrew slave, then he shall work for six years, and on the seventh he shall go free without payment.” (Shemot 21:2). If the message were not clear enough, the Torah makes it explicit in Vayikra: “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as slaves.” (Vayikra 25:42).

Through the redemption of the Exodus, God declared the fundamental freedom of all human beings and the cruelty of injustice of the institution of slavery. If this institution cannot be eradicated immediately, it needs at least to be reformed in the here and now. And the first reform is that an Israelite will never again be a slave – even if sold as such, he will be “as a hired or bound laborer” (Vayikra 25:40), and serve at most for six years.

Now, the argument could be made that such reform was only vis-à-vis Jews. It is Jews who cannot be slaves; other people do not have, or are not entitled to, this fundamental right of freedom. But is such a position consistent with the Torah’s values and message? If Jews have a fundamental right to freedom, this is presumably rooted in their very humanity, their having been created bi’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and this applies equally to all people.

Now this revolutionary idea – that even slaves are human beings – is central to another reform that the Torah introduces: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.” (21:20). Imagine! A slave master can be held accountable for killing his slaves –it is considered an act of murder! Such radical ideas were unheard of even as recently as two centuries ago. Of course, even the Torah’s reform cannot be complete: “But if the slave survives a day or two [and then dies], the master shall not be avenged, because he is his property.” (21:21). The full humanity, the full non-property nature, of the slave cannot yet be recognized. If it were, there would be no slavery. But at least his humanity can be asserted and underscored. It is in this vein the Rabbis rule that if a person kills another man’s slave, then such an act is always considered murder. (Rambam, Laws of Murder, 2:13). When there are no property rights, the slave’s full humanity, his fundamental humanity, can assert itself.

Another mitzvah in this week’s parsha is relevant here. We are commanded to not to oppress the stranger, “for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (23:9). But of course, we were not just strangers in Egypt, but slaves as well! And while a stranger may be marginalized or mistreated, a slave can be oppressed, beaten, raped, and killed. Knowing, then, as we do, the soul of the slave, do we really think that we cannot oppress a stranger, but are free to oppress a slave? The Torah allows this unconscionable institution to continue because it could not, at this time, be eliminated, but there is no question as to the goal towards which the Torah is directing us.

So slavery is not the ideal. Which means that there can be mitzvot in the Torah which represent not the endpoint of our religious and moral journey, but rather the first step towards it. The possibility that this is true, was already articulated by Rambam in regard to animal sacrifices (Guide to the Perplexed 3:32), and was more recently developed by Rav Nachmun Rabinovitch, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’ale Adumin:

[Was this move to eradicate slavery an innovation?] Of course it was; but it was born of and nourished by the Torah, and its origins are rooted in Scripture, though the world at the time of the Bible was not yet fit for it… Divine providence then led to the abolition of slavery nearly everywhere… The abolition of slavery is simply a partial realization of the exalted ideal taught by the Torah; and the history of the West makes it clear beyond all doubt that one of the decisive factors in that process was the widespread knowledge of the Torah. (“The Way of Torah”, Edah Journal, pp. 11-12)

If this is true, then, it puts upon us a weighty responsibility. When we find ourselves deeply challenged by the values or ethics that seem to be expressed in a given mitzvah, we need to strive to understand where the mitzvot are pointing us, we need to ask ourselves if the Torah’s ideal is embodied by this mitzvah, or lies beyond it. But there is a danger in this enterprise. For if we apply this approach too liberally, we will pervert the meaning of many mitzvot, reading non-Torah values into the Torah.

While this danger is real, it does not absolve us of our responsibility. We cannot take the “safe route” and assert that all mitzvot always represent the ideal. This is also a shirking of our moral and religious responsibilities. What are the moral and religious consequences of understanding slavery to be a good thing? Horrific! To choose to read every mitzvah as an ideal is also a choice, and a choice that – in the case of slavery – is intolerable.

How then do we undertake our task with the full weight of responsibility? The Sfat Emet addresses this question, by framing it in terms of the Ten Commandments and parshat Mishpatim. According to him, the Ten Commandments represent the acceptance of the Heavenly Yoke and our bedrock obligation to observe the mitzvot. Only once this is accepted and deeply internalized can we move on to parshat Mishpatim. Mishpatim represent rational laws, laws that are placed before the people, that is, they represent the human attempt to understand the meaning and values behind the mitzvot. This is a necessary step in our serving of God, but is risky. The way to make this necessary move is to come to it with humility, commitment to the mitzvot, and, most importantly, yirat Shamayim.

With yirat Shamayim in place, we can allow ourselves to do the necessary work to try to understand where the mitzvot are pointing us, and what – beyond simple performance – is God’s will in this world. To do so irresponsibly is intolerable, but to not do so at all can be, at least in some cases, unconscionable. Let us first lay the bedrock of the Ten Commandments, of observance and yirat Shamayim. But then let us take the next step and move from parshat Yitro to parshat Mishpatim so that we can live up to the fullness of our moral and religious responsibilities, living God’s Torah in this world.

Shabbat Shalom!