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Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles. Does Judaism Condone Slavery?

Dear Rabbi.  The first law of Parshat Mishpatim encapsulating the primary code of civil and criminal legislation in the Torah deals with slavery.  I am disconcerted by this. Doesn’t Judaism condemn slavery out of hand?  Shalom.  Petra M.

Dear Petra,

The Torah mirrors the creation of the world.  (Indeed, the majestic Psalm 19, in which King David juxtaposes glorification of Creation with praise for the Torah, highlights this.)  G-D created the raw materials of the earth in order for man to develop them. This is implied in the phrase “that G-D created to make” (Gen 2:3), understood to mean that man will continue to “make”, i.e. develop, what G-D has created.  Wheat is the work of G-D, while bread is the work of man (see Midrash Tanchuma Tazria 5).

Similarly with regard to Torah.  The Written Torah, together with the body of oral explanations given to Moses to teach to Bnei Yisrael, is termed “the blueprint of creation” (see Bereshit Raba 1:1). It contains the totality of wisdom in potentia.  The Oral Torah in its development, however, also requires a human element for its actualisation.  Our Sages developed the Oral Torah in the form of the Mishna and the Talmud utilising definitive rules of interpretation and have continued to do so until the present day, making authentic Jewish teaching relevant to every new generation. This is the meaning of halacha – ongoing development, not static fossilisation.

Furthermore, dibra Torah be-lashon bnei adam, the Torah speaks in a language accessible to its listeners and would be adherents.  Slavery was an accepted fact of life culturally at the time the Torah was given – much as it is a given in today’s society (unlike the Torah penal system) that a larcenist is torn from his family and incarcerated behind bars regardless of whether or not he is a danger to society . However there was no comparison between the system of slavery in the surrounding cultures where the slave was an object belonging to a master who had unlimited power over him, and Torah legislation where brutal treatment of any servant or slave, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, ensured his immediate liberty. In the Hebrew language there is one word, eved, for both slave and servant.  Thus we will henceforth use the Hebrew term eved.

Let us delve a little deeper.  The passage you mention which opens this week’s sidra, speaks of a thief who is unable to pay restitution to the person from whom he stole.  Instead of being sent to prison – which is hardly ever rehabilitative – the thief pays his debt by doing “community service”. He is “sold” by the court (much as soccer stars are sold today!) and the money raised compensates his victim. (He may also offer himself as an eved as an escape from extreme poverty.) Meanwhile, the eved and his family (no, he is not torn away from his wife and kids) become members of the employer’s wider family and are cared for accordingly. The eved (and his family) may not be given inferior food or bedding.  If there is only one bed, the eved gets it and the ‘master’ sleeps on the floor.  The eved may not be made to serve more than six years and at the end of his tenure he is paid a generous ‘severance package’ (Deut 15:13-15). If he voluntarily opts to stay longer he has his ear pierced as a mark of shame for wanting to perpetuate his slavery (Ex. 21:6). Eved status is not to be sought.  “For Bnei Yisrael are servants to Me, they are My servants .. I am G-D your G-d!” ((Lev 25:55).

So far we have spoken about an eved Ivri, a Hebrew servant.  What about a non-Jewish eved, colloquially known as eved Canaani. This is the eved (or ama, maidservant) spoken about in the fourth of the Ten Commandments who, it is enjoined, “must rest like you” on Shabbat (Deut 5:14). Moreover, all such male avadim are circumcised and thus become ‘partial Jews’, observing all mitsvot except positive, time-bound ones – the same mitsvot as those observed by Jewish women. Occasionally, these non-Jewish avadim may even have been students of the Torah, as in the case of the famed Tavi, servant of Rabban Gamaliel. The Mishna (Berachot 2:7) relates that when Tavi died, R’ Gamliel observed mourning rites for him. When his students questioned him about it, R’ Gamliel declared: “Tavi was kasher!” – by which he meant that he was not only extremely virtuous but also a Torah scholar worthy of receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination)!    One might also take note of the wisdom of Eliezer, Canaanite servant of Abraham, and the deep respect which Abraham shows him (Gen 24).

The gulf between how slaves elsewhere were maltreated and how avadim were benignly treated in the nation of Israel is evident from the law prohibiting Bnei Yisrael to return a refugee slave seeking asylum in Erets Yisrael to his master.  “He shall dwell in your midst, in whatever place he shall choose in one of your cities which is beneficial to him; you must not verbally abuse him” (Deut 23:16)  Why would a foreign slave have sought asylum among our nation? Evidently because he knew he would be treated humanely, unlike in his native land.

The last word on the treatment of foreign slaves must be had by Rambam: The paths of wisdom demand of a human being to be merciful and striving for justice. One should not press a heavy yoke upon his slave and torment him but should give him to eat and drink of everything. The sages of old were in the habit of sharing with the slave every dish they ate, and they gave food to … the slaves before they themselves sat down to eat ….He should speak to him gently and listen to any grievances he may have …Whoever is merciful will receive mercy! (M.T. Sefer Kinyan, Avadim 9:8)

Nowadays, countries who consider themselves civilised do not practise slavery. This suits Judaism just fine, as the halachic slavery-legislation, humane as it is, was intended only for a world in which slavery was a given. As I started earlier, halacha, while essentially consistent, must remain relevant to every epoch.  However I would venture to suggest that Judaism’s treatment of slaves 3,000 years ago compares very favourably to the way white-collar, let alone blue-collar, criminals, not to speak of refugees, are treated in some prisons or detention centres in the so-called morally-advanced Western world. But let us leave the topics of penal reform and asylum seekers for another day. Meanwhile, I will email you a transcript of my related essay Overcoming The Indignity of Indifference in my book The Cosmic Diamond which I conclude by saying: To declare that the Torah is (only) 3,300 years ahead of its time is to affront the Torah. One wonders when the world will finally catch up!

Do you have a question for Acute Angles? If so, email me at judaim@bigpond.net.au

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at judaim@bigpond.net.au
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