A friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?" (Click here to read Rabbi Cohler-Esses' entire commentary)
I think the key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
This week's parashah / Torah reading and many other passages as well, contain rules for the Israelites regarding the treatment of the Hebrew slave (eved ivri) as well as non-Israelite slaves. These passages make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters:
2-3: When you will buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh year he shall go out liberated for free. If he will come by himself, he shall go out by himself, if he is a woman's husband, then his wife shall go with him."
7-8: And if a man will sell his daughter as a maid, she shall not go out as the slaves go out. If she is bad in the eyes of her master who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall not dominate so as to sell her to a foreign people in his betrayal of her.
26-27: And if a man strike his slave's eye or his maid's eye and destroy it, he shall let them go, liberated for his eye. And if he will knock out his slave's tooth or his maid's tooth, he shall let him go liberated for his tooth. (translation by Rabbi Richard Friedman)
For certain, there are passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in what we deem our holy text. (A master is, for example, allowed to strike a slave, but not, as we've seen, cause any lasting bodily harm. In a related verse, a slave is referred to as the master's money or asset.) All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a very modern-looking television remote control. The recipient of the gift expresses very understandable confusion.
If the passages of Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been profound confusion. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time who could understand and commit to implement those laws.
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture and dress were handed a medieval farming implement and were expected to use it. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, is always about the lives we are leading right now.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.