Torah and Slavery

No one aspires to be a slave (in fact, in our morning prayers, Jews daily thank God for their freedom). I would suspect further that none of us would want own a slave even if it were possible. But if the institution is an unredeemable evil, why does the Torah permit it? That was the question behind this essay:

First of all, I would point out that contemporary Western society’s record on slavery is far from perfect: while we may not give it that name (to avoid legal conflicts and guilty feelings) it’s hard not to use these terms to describe the lives of illegal immigrants employed (and often suffering abuse) as domestics or migrant workers in the West, or those of many children in the Third World who manufacture our cheap consumer goods.

After all, these workers, for all intents and purposes, take these jobs against their will (out of desperation) and at benefits that are often, proportionately, as scandalously poor as were those paid the blacks in early 19th Century America (weren’t the black slaves at least fed and clothed?). It’s not that I’m advocating slavery in any context, I’m simply stating that the institution is alive and well in our society and actively supported by all of us.

So, assuming that it’s somehow an inseparable part of the human condition, channeling slavery towards something productive is the best one can expect.

For example, tradition teaches us that Hagar and Eliezer (the slaves of Abraham) were refined individuals with a thirst for spiritual greatness who would, nonetheless, have had no access to the mentoring and heights they both achieved without being slaves. Similarly with Tavi, a brilliant and beloved slave of the nasi, Rabbi Gamliel (who is quoted a number of times in the Talmud).

That’s not the whole story, but I hope that it suggests new directions for discussion.

Thank you for responding to my inquiry. The thrust of your answer postulates that slavery is an “inseparable part of the human condition”, that the Torah sought to channel towards “something productive.” [However,] it seems clear that idolatry, adultery, theft, etc.. are similarly an “inseparable part of the human condition,” yet the Torah forbids such practices in no uncertain terms. I would welcome and appreciate some elaboration which further explores this issue.

You are absolutely correct: adultery, theft etc., are appalling practices that are thoroughly condemned by the Torah despite the undisputable fact that they do appear throughout human history. So why didn’t the Torah similarly forbid slavery?

Perhaps, however, those examples aren’t so comparable. Maybe we could instead examine, say, the principle of private ownership (which, like slavery, the Torah does allow).

People of wealth value and defend their personal rights despite the fact that those rights can easily engender various social abuses. Wealth, for instance, has tended to remain within fairly limited and closed classes while people without means have often suffered untold indignities and want. The wealthy have the power to dominate and dictate to their workers – often in ways inimical to their best interests. Property is often used as an artificial social measuring-stick of virtue and worth; disenfranchising noble and deserving individuals (Marx wasn’t a complete fool: he did have some strong arguments, even if his practical application was malicious and, ironically, his anti-Semitism was blinding).

So private ownership almost ensures abuse. Nevertheless, it would seem that the general good is better served by the protection of private ownership than by its alternative: communism is only one practical historical example of the potential for public corruption.

In slavery, too, there is the potential for abuse, but I don’t believe that the system is intrinsically abusive (while, again, I’m certainly not advocating its use). Let’s analyze it: What, exactly, is slavery’s evil? There is, of course, the possibility that owners, in a position of tempting authority, might impose their will on their slaves through violence or some other kind of force. But that’s not a necessary outcome (at least not more so than the pain of poverty in a free market economy). Given a healthy and kind society, such cruelty could well become the rare exception.

More central to slavery, however, is the fact that a man or a woman is consigned from birth to a life of labor and poverty and that one human being’s freedom of personal choice is curtailed in favor of another’s. That is certainly a sad state, though one that, when compared to the intense sadness our own society seems to foster (at a given time, I recently read, one in ten Canadians is taking anti-depressants!), is worse only in degree rather than in kind: how many of us – even in our “free” world – have the practical ability to pick up everything on a whim and move to the tropical resort of our choice? None of us, then, is ever likely to experience true economic or social freedom (nor, perhaps, should we expect it).

However, which of slavery’s evils is actually as bad as the cruelty of adultery or the corruption of paganism? Isn’t slavery’s primary shame more similar to those found in free-market-oriented societies? And which of us would oppose the free-market?

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