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“When your brother, Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free (Deut. 15:12).”
It disappoints me every year. Approaching the edge of the Promised Land in Parashat Re‘eh, Moses outlines the possibilities and responsibilities for impending self-rule and national freedom. Inside this list of laws come instructions for being a slaveholder. How can the Torah condone slavery? How can the people who have worked to regain their freedom come into Israel and enslave their brothers?
There is a part of me that yearns to read a flat-out prohibition of slavery, a Thou-Shalt-Not. I’d like to see an unambiguous ban, such as the one found in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Amen.
Of course, writing this doesn’t make it so. Despite the U.N. ban, slavery persists in our contemporary global society in several pernicious forms: chattel slavery, debt bondage, sex slavery, and forced labor. Twenty-seven million people remain enslaved today.
Limitations on Slavery
The Torah, though it doesn’t abolish it, limits slavery. Even if my absolutist sensibilities desire an outright ban, there is a pragmatic part of me that understands the value of regulating, rather than abolishing, the institution. Slavery was a fact of the biblical era and Israelite legislation made it a more humane condition. In fact, the Talmud describes the many restrictions governing slaveholders as so burdensome as to equal a form of slavery itself: “One who buys a slave is as if they bought themselves a master (Kiddushin 20a).”
Biblical laws regulating slavery, and the economic and social inequalities that lead to it, can be useful today. These laws create categories that help us use our own economic power in imperfect and vastly unjust conditions. Instead of utopian dreams, the Torah offers laws to temper existing inequality and injustice.
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