Naomi Graetz

Slaves for all Time—In Perpetuity: Parshat Behar

Years ago, a colleague of mine, asked me to write a paper together with her on the topic of sexual trafficking in women. We published an article together and I then went on to write another article without her that delved more deeply into the Jewish sources about trafficking. The most disturbing source in my research was a quotation from this week’s parsha. The first clause is not disturbing and is often quoted by many to show how wonderful our tradition is:

If your kin under you continue in straits and must be given over to you, do not subject them to the treatment of a slave. Remaining with you as a hired or bound laborer, they shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. Then they, along with any children, shall be free of your authority; they shall go back to their family and return to the ancestral holding. — For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude. — You shall not rule over them ruthlessly; you shall fear your God (Leviticus 25: 39-43).


The second clause is very disturbing to the modern reader. When I included it in my handout in 2009 at a conference of rabbis for human rights in North America, I was asked, “Why highlight this?” Even modern rabbis, in those days, did not like to read texts such as these; they would have preferred, and perhaps still do, to sweep them under the carpet.

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves (Leviticus 25: 44-46a).

Furthermore, our text makes it perfectly clear by concluding:

But as for your Israelite kin, no one shall rule ruthlessly over another (Leviticus 25: 46b).

In other words, you can be ruthless about the “alien” slaves, but not your own.

Of course, since the Torah is not monolithic, we have quotations elsewhere which seem to contradict this source:

And when, throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present an offering by fire of pleasing odor to יהוה —as you do, so shall it be done by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before יהוה; the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you (Numbers 15: 14-16).

And the source in our parsha was clearly disturbing to our sages, which we see in a discussion in the Talmud. Despite the fact that female slaves are included in our parsha, the Talmud attempts to mitigate the harshness of this decree, at least for some slave-women:

There was an incident involving a certain maidservant in Pumbedita with whom people were performing prohibited sexual acts, and her master was unable to prevent this. Abaye said: If not for the fact that Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says that anyone who emancipates his slave violates a positive mitzva, as it is written in the Torah: “Of them may you take your bondmen forever” (Leviticus 25:46), I would force her master, and he would write and give her a bill of manumission, enabling her to marry a Jew, which would ensure that she would cease her promiscuous behavior. Ravina said: In a case like that, Rav Yehuda concedes that it is permitted to emancipate her, due to the prohibited matter that others are violating (BT Gittin 38a).
On the other hand, the Talmud continues:
Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: Anyone who emancipates his slave violates a positive mitzva, as it is stated: “Of them may you take your bondmen forever” (Leviticus 25:46). This is a positive mitzva requiring that one subjugate slaves their entire lives. Therefore, it is prohibited to emancipate them (BT Gittin 38b)..


I later made claims about this parsha as being used to justify the ongoing trafficking of foreign women in Israel. Based on this difference, I argued that there was clearly a differential attitude in Jewish sources between the prostitution of Jewish and non-Jewish woman and that the attitude was reflected in the experience of non-Jewish women trafficked into Israel. Whenever I brought this up in talks I gave to rabbis and women’s groups (in Israel, the US and Australia), people squirmed; they did not like hearing this source—it sounded too much like justification for slavery in the US—which of course it was! Even in the Talmud there was a source that suggested if your (i. e. male) urges get to be too much, go elsewhere for fulfillment:

Abbahu said on R. Hanina’s authority: Better had a man secretly transgress than publicly profane God’s name… R. Il’ai the Elder said: If a man sees that his [evil] desire is conquering him, let him go to a place where he is unknown, don black and cover himself with black, and do as his heart desires, but let him not publicly profane God’s name (B. Kiddushin 40a),

My understanding of trafficking of women as opposed to simple prostitution (and nothing is very simple about that), is that it involves transactions crossing borders. Thus, I have argued elsewhere, that Abraham trafficked Sarah to Pharaoh in Egypt or Naomi trafficked Ruth the Moabite to Boaz in Bethlehem.


People always ask me why do I have to point to the bad texts. Since my book Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating (1998) is going to be published in Hebrew sometime this year, I’m sure I will be asked that question over and over again. In fact, to my monthly study group that I have been teaching about the bad texts having to do with the permissibility of wifebeating in Jewish sources, I have been getting that kind of negative flack. However, I have always maintained that we must know what is in our sources, to understand where we are coming from and also what our detractors surely know as well.

I believe that one of the reasons, the American Jewish students who support Hamas are doing so, not only out of ignorance, but because in the past they were only fed positive things about the Zionist enterprise. And when they suddenly hear that it is possible to see Israel in a bad light, to see us as conquerors or imperialists, they don’t know how to handle this information. We should never sugar coat our tradition. There are multiple views; there is pluriformity; there is the good and the bad. It is a mistake to hide this from our students whom we educate. The attitude of “either-or” which seems to dominate discourse today is very distressing to say the least. Even a wonderful text by Maimonides that is widely quoted, is a point of contention in today’s toxic atmosphere. Members of the far-right religious parties in Israel choose to disagree with the following quotation because of their ultra-nationalist concerns. It is ironic that it is the secular public that is demanding that we abide by what Maimonides wrote:

The redemption of prisoners has a higher priority than supporting the poor and there is no greater mitzvah than that, for the prisoner is among the poor, thirsty and naked and in a life-threatening situation. Those who turn a blind eye from redemption violate a multitude of laws….thus there is no greater mitzvah than the redemption of prisoners (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:10).

Shabbat shalom!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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