By Rabbi Jordan Parr
The word “slavery” sparks instant revulsion. We immediately think of antebellum plantations, slave markets and the Civil War. It’s America’s original sin, one for which we have not yet repented.
Our parasha might do the same since it accepts slavery as normal and proper. When an Israelite acquires a Hebrew slave, he serves six years. Then he is set free unless he requests to remain a slave. In that case, his master pierces his ear with an awl. He might request to stay if, say, his master gave him a wife and they bore children. If he leaves, his family stays with the owner.
In the case of a man who sells his daughter as a slave, the girl goes back to her family when she shows the signs of puberty. The Torah protects women and girls from an unwanted marriage or, in the worst case, rape. Adult women, who are assumed to be married, are not mentioned.
We should not think about Biblical slavery in the same way that we think of African slaves in the United States; Hebrew slavery is instead a form of indentured servitude. Slavery is not a permanent situation; even the slave who chooses to remain with his master must be released during the Jubilee year, which occurred every 50 years.
The Torah provides yet another protection for slaves. When a man blinds his male or female slave, that slave goes free. And it’s not just the eye; any action that causes a disability leads to a release. Jewish masters are not allowed to physically beat their slaves, lest they be set free, even due to a lost tooth.
The Torah demands that Israelite masters treat their Hebrew slaves humanely. It guarantees release after six years, an option for lifelong servitude to remain with his wife and family, a mandatory release at the Jubilee every 50 years, an automatic release for girls when they reach puberty and another automatic release if the slave is injured. The slave can also return to his property. Plus, the owner cannot sell a female slave to another person. That is a lot of protection for a Hebrew who becomes a slave.
Elsewhere, the Torah discusses the non-Israelite slave as well as the woman captured in wartime. We can look at them at another time.
This talk makes us uncomfortable, especially due to the American experience. But how would we feel, hypothetically of course, if the Temple was rebuilt and all 613 mitzvot came back into effect? How would Jews feel about reviving slavery today? Even in the Orthodox world, there is no thought that slavery will ever experience a revival, even if the Temple is restored. In the book “Crisis and Faith,” Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits writes “that a Jew should buy another Jew as a slave is an intolerable thought which is rejected by everything that the teaching of the Torah in its religious and ethical significance stands for, yet it was a fact accepted and incorporated in a law.”
To put Berkovits’ important statement into context, there are laws in the Torah that we cannot observe today for moral and ethical reasons. The laws of slavery are but one example of placing enough fences around a mitzvah so that it cannot be enforced.
Let’s apply this thinking to the American slave experience. We would consider the kidnapping, enslavement, rape and subjugation of African slaves to be one of the most heinous of sins — and one that should never happen again. As Jews, we must endeavor never to let it happen again.
Rabbi Jordan Parr is an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas. In addition, he is the creator and host of the podcast Torah for Christians (www.torahforchristians.net), bringing the beauty of Judaism to a wider audience. He also writes the weekly blog “Bible Stories They (Never) Taught You in Religious School” available on Substack and is the rabbi of Temple Beth El of Odessa, Texas. Rabbi Parr lives in Richardson.