I was recently a panellist at a conference for teachers of theology. The discussions were very general and it was necessary for me to explain Judaism’s basic tenets of faith, the origin of scripture and our daily practices. When the floor was opened to questions, one teacher shared her struggle of being a religious person in an atheistic social circle and society. The question that troubled her most was: “How is it that all three major religions condone slavery?”
This is a fair question, as the concept of slavery has become absolute anathema in all modern societies. Involuntary servitude is man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man. How could a system preaching a God-inspired code provide the framework for such an institution?
Morality in Judaism is an evolving code. What is considered upright and righteous in one generation may not necessarily be so a generation later. It isn’t that we are better than previous generations, but rather that we have evolved. Women’s education was unheard of in the ancient world, yet today, even in the most extreme segments of the Jewish world, women share an equal, and often even greater, educational opportunity than men.
Slavery may have been acceptable once, but today it is immoral. All three major religions agree on this. Still the question lingers as to how such a concept could ever have been permitted in the first place.
In Shmuel Rubinstein’s ‘The Law in Antiquity’, the author states:
The situation of a slave in ancient times was truly awful. He was like an object owned by his master, who was free to do whatever he wanted in order to force the slave to perform hard labour day and night, and to use him for all kinds of perverted purposes. The master could beat his slave mercilessly for any major or minor wrongdoing; he could permanently maim his limbs without fear of any punishment. For any purpose desired by the master, the slave could be blinded. For some wrongdoing in his work, or for breaking some vessel, the slave’s fingers or hands could be cut off, and this was apparently also done to prisoners of war as a sign of enslavement … slaves were routinely castrated in order that thoughts of women would not interfere with their work, and eunuchs were also used to serve women. In summary, there was nothing that prevented a master from doing any of this to his slave; it seems that they would even make the slaves deaf in order that they would not talk among themselves during their work, or for other purposes …. blemishes were inflicted on the exposed body parts of the slave in order to mark him as a slave, and the blemishes were a sign of slavery.
Compare this to the Torah’s command:
- If you cause a permanent wound to a slave he automatically gains his freedom.
- It is prohibited to sell the slave to an idol worshipper, lest they mistreat him. If one did, then the Beit Din can obligate the original owner to pay up to ten-fold for his return.
- A slave that has fled his master MAY NOT be returned to bondage.
- One should feed his slave before himself and he may not humiliate him.
The Torah’s parameters for the slave owner demand that the status of the slave be changed from being pure chattel to one of being a human. One may own slaves, one may work them, but you may never abuse them.
When contrasting the two approaches to slavery in the ancient world, the difference is stark and profound. There is slavery and there is slavery. The controls imposed by the Torah were revolutionary and unparalleled in their day.
Morality must evolve, but evolution happens gradually. Humanity needs to be weaned from uncultured philosophies and dated mind-sets, but it takes time. Man did not evolve from the chimp overnight; similarly, the moral code shifts over time until the original positions seem bizarre and foreign.
Each generation looks to its leaders to direct them in Torah’s ways that maintain fidelity to its past, yet embraces the evolution of our consciousness.