Jews as slave owners(?)

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The title of this post makes me cringe as I’m assuming it does any decent person reading it.
How can we reconcile the existence of slavery in the Torah and its normative regulation in Halacha with what is in our days a fundamental universal truth – the abhorrence of slavery in any form?
In addition, how can we as Orthodox Jews understand slavery as part of the eternal Torah which we believe is relevant to our lives in every generation? are we to sympathize with slave ownership?
Two classic approaches to this challenge are:

1. Slavery in the Torah has nothing to do with slavery as we know it from history. This approach emphasizes those Halachot that set Torah’s slavery as fundamentally different. One of the more famous of these is pointing out that one only becomes a slave by either selling themselves or by being sold by the court after stealing and not being able to pay back. Other examples are that one is forbidden to task their slave with denigrating work, that a slave has the right to sue his master if physically harmed, that – at most – a person could be a slave for 6 years and of course – even slaves have 1 day off a week and other such examples. It is more of a semantic confusion than a moral contradiction: what the Torah calls ‘slave’, we today call ’employee’, ‘maid’ or ‘cleaning lady’ or ‘nanny’.
Though this definitely depicts a significantly milder form of slavery than that we are familiar with from history, it tends to leave out the less “PC” aspects of slavery in Halacha; that one may forcibly sell his – Jewish – daughter as a slave if she is of a certain age, that a non Jew can be taken as a slave by force without stealing or selling themselves, that he can be forced to mate and then have his children taken from him and sold, that it is forbidden to release him from slavery, that one is allowed to assign him fruitless and humiliating work, that it is permissible to beat ones slave as long as no irreversible damage is done, etc…
To call this approach an attempt at apologetics would be an understatement.

2. Slavery exists even if we make believe it doesn’t. Not necessarily the same crude physical ownership of one man over another, but just as real an exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the CEO who exploits the manpower wabolish slavery MEDorker who cannot make ends meet, has no health insurance or benefits of any kind, who can be fired at a moments notice with no supports or assistance once his exploitation is complete. Better to regulate such non ideal societal dynamics, thus minimizing the exploitation, than ignoring them and telling ourselves that “slavery is a thing of the past and of no concern to us as modern people”. Having slavery as a fixed element in Torah  and Halacha reminds us that severe exploitation will always be among us and we must recognize it and try to regulate and minimize it. This approach emphasizes the degree to which following the Halachot of slavery would have contained the more crude and cruel elements of slavery and even progress certain barbaric tendencies among individuals or groups who are more prone to being exploited to such degrees. (i.e. a Jewish slave who sells himself can support his family without resorting to crime, one sold by the court for theft can undergo rehabilitation – leading a productive and disciplined lifestyle, the non Jewish slave can become refined through the example of Jewish morality and Jewish observance, which he becomes obligated by, etc…)
This approach is a penetrating and complex one which carries a strong moral call to every generation but also includes a disturbing patronizing attitude as well (to put it mildly…).

A third approach to the question, which I would like to suggest is based on Rav Kook’s discussion of the obligation to annihilate Amalek and the moral dilemma this Mitzvah poses. He writes the following:

“The prevention of possibility is to us a testimony of Hashem’s will and prevention of will has many forms, sometimes a practical prevention like the fear of the ruling nations and sometimes a spiritual prevention. We are pleased when such preventions exist, as we recognize that such is the will of the divine providence in such times”.
Rav Kook says something tremendously daring – it is not a coincidence that in a generation when the idea of genocide is deplorable we happen to not know who Amalek is, thus preventing us from fulfilling the Mitzvah, even if we wanted to. Through the moral development of human kind and the ‘mixing of the nations’ which has erased the existence of an identifiable Amalekite nation, the application of this Mitzvah and all the Halachot that go with it is no longer an active part of our observance, nor do we yearn for their renewal.
We accept the impossibility of this Mitzvah’s observance as a positive expression of a more developed state of humankind and The Jewish People. Through history and circumstance, Hashem has turned the Mitzvah of annihilating Amalek from a practical, physical, one to a spiritual and symbolic one.
This idea has far reaching implications with the obvious questions being – how and who can decide that the physical and/or spiritual inability to observe something translates into testimony that it is no longer divinely desired and that we should be happy about it? what other Mitzvot could you apply this idea to (Animal sacrifices? Mamzerim? not saving a non Jew on Shabbat? women’s role in Jewish society?)
These are excellent questions for a different time but I would suggest applying it, in the meantime, to slavery in the Torah:
Yes, the laws of slavery were tremendously advanced in comparison to slavery in the ancient – and even modern – world and yes, exploitation still exists (though to far, far lesser degrees) and yes, the regulation of slavery with normative guidelines and restrictions served as a refining element to both master and even slave, considering the alternatives.
But even so, we believe that the abolishment of slavery in humankind, especially in Western society, is divinely inspired, divinely directed and part of the moral progression of the world towards a more moral, more ideal, more holly world. The – divinely directed – impracticality of these Mitzvot is cause for tremendous optimism.

So, what are we to do with all of the Psukim, Midrashei Halacha and Halchot about slavery? am I saying – Heaven forbid – that ‘they aren’t relevant any more’***? to that I would say:
1. Talmud Torah is always relevant
2. No guarantees exist that humankind will not morally regress again (70 years ago slavery of the Jewish People would have been a blessing…)
3. Traces of slavery still exist in the world as well as shadows of it in our own society
4. There is an entire world of Chassidish and Kabalistic literature that learn from these Psukim and Halachot guidelines and directives for the inner ‘slave’ and ‘master’

I believe this third approach holds within it tremendous power, combining a traditional approach to Torah and Mitzvot with the most refined moral sensitivities and search for relevance. It is definitely the one I will be thinking about this coming Shabbat when reading the laws of slaves and slavery.

(*** What this third approach may actually mean is this: due to a variety of changes and developments, Mitzvot can become, categorically, no longer relevant as normative behaviors. But – and this is crucial – it is not us, humans, who make it no longer relevant, rather, Hashem makes them no longer relevant. This idea can be part of a larger explanation of מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא “In the time to come – Mitzvot will be nullified”, again – not by us, rather, by HIM through changes in humanity, be they ethnic, national, societal, psychological or moral. Deserves its own post but couldn’t help myself…)

2 Comments

Filed under Halacha, Morality

2 responses to “Jews as slave owners(?)

  1. Were GM workers (and others) told they could keep their jobs if they had their ears pieced, many of them would be pressing their earlobes to door posts.

    • Technically speaking it was more like have the whole bottom of their earlobe cut off in a very unattractive way but I’m sure you’re right about at least some, who ended up with nothing.
      Plays in to approach number 2.

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