Slavery: Then and now

Parshat Mishpatim opens the catalog of practical mitzvot that follow the ten commandments with an uncomfortable topic; Slavery. Beyond the irony of the juxtaposition of the laws of slavery with the narrative of the exodus, the divinely sanctioned exploitation of human beings is a hard Idea for us enlightened westerners to swallow.

In dealing with the theological difficulties of slavery there are a few paths we usually  take to make the idea a little more digestible. The fist and most simple is to note the fact that the form of slavery discussed In the Torah is more of a form of indentured servitude, as the Hebrew slave is guaranteed his freedom after seven years of labor and protected from physical abuse. The oral tradition goes on to expound on the substantial rights he is granted within the framework of slavery. (Although the conditions of Canaanite (non-Jewish) slaves are no where near those of the Hebrew slave, Maimonides wrote in his code of law in the 12th century that all slaves deserve the same fair treatment).

In addressing the question of slavery today many turn Rav Kook’s unique perspective on slavery in his famous letter on the topic. Counter intuitively,  In responding to the moral question regarding slavery in the Torah Not only does he defend the institution of slavery he turns it into an ideal. The letter presents a complex and far reaching approach to the topic that is typical of his work as a whole.( for my purposes here I will be using only be discussing a small element of his overall Idea.)

The basic assumption of Rav Kook’s argument is a striking one: Exploitation of the weak by the strong is an inevitable element of the world we live in. Expanding on this idea he goes on to explain that slavery is in fact a much more moral model of servitude than standard capitalist exploitation. Bringing the example of coal miners , he argues that if their employers considered them their property they would be less inclined to be so careless in regards to their workers overall safety and well being . Slaves are not cheap, Boatloads of Irish immigrants are.        

Strictly speaking ,for me much of Rav Kook’s letter is deeply problematic. (The theological justification for enslaving blacks “for their own good” being particularly despicable.)  Despite this, I feel the letter is  important on a very immediate level . It tells us that our sense of morality has blind spots. One of the biggest blind spots is the one in which we ourselves are standing. We think about slavery in the Torah and we feel uncomfortable, Rav Kook redirects our critical gaze back to ourselves. Although many of us consider the victory over slavery in the American civil war as the epic triumph of good over evil which it was, It was a very partial one. Many of the things that made the institution of slavery In the united states so evil are still present in our world today.

How often do we think about the people who make the things that make our life so good? As westerners we all enjoy a quality of life that is unimaginable for much of humanity. Said quality of life is built on exploitation of human beings on a Truly massive scale . In many ways we all benefit from a system that for all intents and purposes enslaves human beings, albiet indirectly. Take the example of Foxconn for instance.(Foxconn is the company that runs the factories in china in which Apple and many other technology giants manufacture the goods we all love so much). After a rash of suicides amongst their employees that were ostensibly the result of horrific labor conditions, Foxconn installed anti-suicide netting around their tall buildings.  As of today they also require employees to sign a no suicide pact as well as a legally binding document protecting the company from law suit in the event they do kill themselves. (Apparently, not all Foxconn employees agree with those of us who say “sweatshop labor is actually an amazing improvement in the quality of life of Chinese people”.)

Returning to Rav Kook’s point about the inevitability of exploitation , history has seemed to vindicate him. Only modest steps addressing specific manifestations of the issue of exploitation have proven successful, as In the case of abolishing slavery in the united states. Broad reaching attempts to eradicate exploitation have been disastrous, to say the least , as in the case of every Marxist revolution ever.

It’s not a hard task to deconstruct what we consider to be our historical progress away from slavery and toward a just and fair society.  It’s important that we think about the bugs in our moral compass and try to avoid self deception. It is equally important not to allow ourselves to become cynical about the idea of tikkun olam. Most (all?) of our endevours in tikkun olam prove to be half measures at best . In spite of this Its important not to belittle them completely. they are the expression of one of the more beautiful aspects of human nature, the strive to make the world a better place.

In regards to making the world a better place, The idea of redemption is central in Judaism . For me, Scolem’s statement that “Messianism is the opposite of existentialism” is a core Idea . Often placing the responsibility to address the most difficult issues in life in God’s hands is a cop out. That being said, the “escapist” action of bringing God into the equation modestly acknowledges our limitations as human beings in attempting to fix that which is broken in our world without relinquishing the faith that things can be better . Perhaps thinking about these things in  light of the faith they can be resolved together with an honest acknowledgment of our limitations has the potential to allow us to address exploitation in a more effective manner one day. Ani Ma’amin.

About the Author
Michael made Aliyah five years ago from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has spent Most of his time since then studying in various Yeshivot along the religious Zionist spectrum. Michael is currently studying in Yeshivat Siach in Efrat, a yeshiva centered around creating a Jewish dialogue with postmodernism.
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