Thursday, May 15, 2008

Table Talk for Behar 5768 - Supermorality and Slavery

Over lunch at the Yeshiva University Yarchei Kallah I attended this week in Memphis, I found myself in a discussion about the nature of ethics imposed by the Torah. One of the participants in the discussion quoted an article he read suggesting that while the Torah transmits moral imperatives, it sets not a ceiling for moral behavior, but a floor. This means that while the Torah might permit a behavior, we have grown in our humanity to consider that behavior immoral.

The greatest example of this idea is slavery. Torah law permits slavery, both of Jews and of non-Jews. Yet, my friend suggested that although slavery is not forbidden, humanity has progressed to the point that it realizes the inherent immorality of slavery, and we now seek to abolish it in all forms.

While I agreed with his argument regarding the violent capture of non-Jewish slaves (known as eved kena’ani – Canaanite slaves), I disagreed regarding the notion of Jewish slaves. How does a Jew become a slave? He either sells himself to repay a debt or the court sells him to pay for a stolen or damaged item. While we call him a slave, the Torah treats him more like a worker, telling us לֹא-תִרְדֶּה בוֹ, בְּפָרֶךְ; וְיָרֵאתָ, מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ – “you shall not rule over him with rigor, and you shall fear God.” Rashi explains that while his “owner” can demand that his slave work, the slave is not there simply for his personal pleasure and enjoyment. For this reason, the owner cannot give him unneeded busywork simply for his own pleasure. Often, the “master” must first care for the needs of his slaves before he can care for his own.

By creating the model of Jewish slavery then, the Torah establishes a system for individuals who have failed in society in the classical sense; a safety-net that allows them to function productively within society. Contrast the Torah’s punishment of a thief – slavery – with that of modern society, which throws that same thief in prison as a punishment, yet takes no other steps to ensure that the thief doesn’t return to a life of crime. By not making the thief sell himself to repay his debt, we might be making him happier in the short term, but in the long run I’m not so sure.

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