We read in parshat Behar that Torah places restraints on the institution of indentured servitude, encouraging the redemption of one who, because of financial straits, must sell himself into servitude. Having known the suffering of slavery, the Israelites are prohibited from enslaving one another. We would like to see this prohibition extended to non-Israelites, but the Torah does not go this far. It further instructs that when Israelites are pressed into indentured servitude by foreigners, they should be redeemed by their families.
Torah does not obliterate servitude and slavery, which were rife in the ancient world, but rather limits them and continually reminds us to show compassion to others, strongly suggesting that slavery should fall by the wayside, For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God (Leviticus 25:55).
How can Torah, which teaches that each and every human being is created in the divine image, countenance slavery? Why didn’t Torah abolish slavery once and for all, in one valiant, dramatic, radical sweep?
It has often been explained that ancient agricultural economies would have collapsed without the staples of indentured servants and slaves. That claim was made far more recently when our own country faced the debacle of the Civil War in the mid-19th century. Torah, the explanation goes, limits slavery, promotes redemption of indentured servants, and lays a groundwork for eventually ending all slavery and servitude as a matter of justice and compassion, rather than legislative caveat.
And so we find in the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) the laws concerning slavery couched in ethical terms that rely on us to “do the right thing.”
It is permissible to work a non-Jewish servant harshly. Yet, although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant, and to provide them from every dish and every drink.Rambam has faith that those who take Torah seriously, internalizing its values, will come out on the side of compassion and justice. August Bondi, an immigrant to Nebraska from Austria in 1848, was active in the Free State movement, which advocated that Nebraska become an anti-slavery state. The vote was stolen by heavily armed pro-slavery factions, and Bondi joined John Brown’s raid in 1856. Bondi survived the battle and continue to champion the anti-slavery movement. Michael Heilprin immigrated from Europe in 1858. A biblical scholar, critic, and writer, he was appalled by the infamous proslavery sermon preached by Rabbi M. J. Raphall from the pulpit of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City on January 4, 1861. A week later, Heilprin published a passionate editorial in opposition (you can read it here). Heilprin rightly distinguishes what Torah permitted in the ancient world from the values it inculcated and later traditions that teach us to create a better world. Rabbi David Einhorn was among those who did just what Rambam trusted many Jews would do. He spoke vehemently and vociferously against slavery from his pulpit at Har Sinai in Baltimore. In 1861 an angry mob threatened him with violent – tarring and feathering – and he fled to Philadelphia But he did not relent in the pursuit of Abolition. These three, and many more, fulfilled Rambam's expectation.
The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals. Does it not say, As the eyes of the servant to the hand of his master; as the eyes of the maid to her mistress [so our eyes are towards the Lord our God...] (Psalms 123:2).
So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant screaming and anger, rather speak with him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me?... Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb? (Job 31: 13, 15)
For anger and cruelty are only found among other nations. The children of Abraham, our father – and they are Israel, to whom the Holy One, blessed be God, has provided the goodness of Torah and commanded us righteous judgments and statutes – they are compassionate to all. This is one of the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God, that we are commanded to emulate: God has compassion for all God has made (Psalms 145:9).
Furthermore, all who have compassion will be treated compassionately, as it is written, God will give you compassion and God will have compassion upon you and multiply you (Deuteronomy 13:18).
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Indentured Servants 9:8)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman