Slavery proves the Torah is a moral backwater. Right?

How many times have I seen the Torah bashed, in comments all over the internet, in informal debates, etc., on account of the fact that it does not outlaw slavery.  Forget about what the Torah says about — modesty and sexual morality, the holiness of the land of Israel, history, even God Himself… because the author(s) of the Torah didn’t even know enough to outlaw slavery.

The word “slavery” makes everyone think of the more recent chapter in our history, that of African slavery: kidnapping, torture, death at sea, shackled and crowded under disgusting and unhygienic conditions, whippings and beatings on a regular basis, crushing labor semi starvation conditions, etc.  Who but an evil or utterly deluded person could think that this is morally acceptable?  So, when we see that the Torah doesn’t outlaw slavery, we think – See? This shows that the Torah is an outdated document with no moral currency.

Well, no, this doesn’t show that the Torah is an outdated document — it only shows the ignorance of the person making the argument. The Hebrew word “oved,” which means worker or slave in English, has been translated as “slavery,” but this is only for lack of a better English word.  Slavery in Biblical times was not what most people think.  Consider: 1) If a man had hired employees and also slaves, he was forbidden to treat his slaves worse than he treated his employees. 2) Mistreating the slave (wounding him, or domineering over him unreasonably) was explicitly forbidden. 3) The master was forbidden to work the slave excessively, by exceeding his physical strength. 4) The Torah commanded that a fugitive slave be given refuge; it was absolutely forbidden to return him to his master. 5) Kidnapping a person and then selling him into slavery was punishable by death. 6) If the master hurt the slave to the extent that his tooth was broken, he was immediately set free. 7) He was considered to be a member of the household and had rights to food and other necessities no less than other members of the household. 8) A slave could, and often did, own money and property. 9 Jewish slaves rested on the Sabbath.

Is that the same thing as African slavery? Come on. I think that Biblical slavery is closer to what you find in France today, where, for certain crimes, the convicted person is given a choice: jail time, or service in a particular branch of the armed forces. If he chooses service, he is bound to that service — but they must treat him properly, and if he is injured he is discharged.

But look at those conditions specified by the Torah — better than many situations today, in which labor is exploited for the sake of profit.   “Employees” are sometimes not given adequate resources to buy food and other necessities. Sometimes employees are worked excessively, 12-15 hours per day. Sometimes employees run up such a debt that they have no option to leave, however much they might like to do so. Sometimes employees are forced to live in unhygienic, inferior dormitories, far from their families — and they have no way out. Frequently in the “West,” people run up large debts or run out of money on account of corporate exploitation and obfuscation of terms, or just on account of the impossible complexity of life today — and then these debts force these people to live lives of toil that they would not have otherwise chosen. And yet, we think our system is so morally elevated? Honestly, aren’t these contemporary abuses more morally repugnant than the “slavery” of Biblical times?

Today we have dishwashers and washing machines and textile factories and running water and heaters and tractors and harvesting machines etc etc. We think we have learned the lesson that slavery is evil. But I’ll bet $100 that, were these automated things to disappear, humanity would go right back to having slaves everywhere. We just wouldn’t call them that.

One thing that is disturbing to me is the difference that the Torah specifies regarding treatment of Jewish slaves vs Canaanite slaves. Caananite slaves had jobs which were more lowly than those of Jewish slaves, and Canaanites were slaves for life, unlike Jewish slaves who were freed after seven years or less.   I’m not sure that I know the answer to this, but I do know that when a non Jew accepts upon himself the laws of Noah, according to the Torah, he is supposed to be elevated and greatly respected by Jews –“Like a high priest”. So maybe most of the indignities associated with being a Canaanite slave fell away once the slave accepted on himself the 7 laws of Noah?  Anyway, while one could certainly argue that this is a moral problem, it’s not the same problem, at all, as that of African slavery.

I wrote this to defend the Torah, which I believe is a great and holy document, and not deserving of all of the deprecation and deconstructionism that it has received.  I wanted to show that the Torah absolutely prohibits slavery as it was practiced in the American South, from the kidnapping, to the maltreatment and abuse, to the theft of the slaves’ personal belongings, and even to the social lowliness of black slaves in the South.  American slave owners who justified their practices based on the Bible were not only liars and hypocrites (not to mention many other things), but they also unjustifiably smeared the Torah, the treasure of our people and the cornerstone of three world religions. 

About the Author
Janice Block is a pediatrician, a wife, a mother, and a student of complementary/alternative medicine. She made Aliyah with her family in 2002.