When questions arise from certain quarters (secular or otherwise) regarding the moral relevance of Torah in contemporary times, the attack usually comes from one of two directions:
1) The Torah holds people responsible for inclinations they have no control over (e.g., homosexuality).
2) The Torah is irredeemably sexist and racist (if not borderline genocidal).
Usually included as part of challenge #2, the question arises as to why the Torah not only tolerates and condones slavery, but institutes ostensibly racially based codes of slave law for the Jews to follow, much like they had just suffered in Egypt. More poignantly, the question arises (as it does regarding other aforementioned issues) that if the Torah is the eternal, immutable fount of all morality, either slavery is morally neutral or even good, or the Torah’s “good”-ness is open to question. Additionally, avdus—in its most extreme manifestations—remains a pillar of classical Judaic practice and hashakfa; witness how every Rosh Hashanah we ask if G-d sees us as children or servants.
Answers run the gamut, but usually don’t help. Not only that, it seems that more people than one would expect are willing to go so far to defend Kavod HaTorah that they will assert that slavery is a benign, even beneficial concept.
There’s the following statement of Rabbi Ze’ev Leff: “The Jew is not free. ‘Frei’ is the password of alienation from Judaism.” Succinct.
There’s the following statement about eved ivri:
The criminal becomes apprenticed to a single Jew who acts as his mentor and social worker. This person has total rights over the criminal (monetary, sexual etc). In the ideal world the Jew uses these rights to show the criminal how to do a decent days work and treat people nicely. The result: when he "earns back what he stole" he is a transformed person and goes free. True in our present world no one individual should be trusted with such a responsibility (which is why there is no slavery today). But when the Mesiah comes the slavery method will be preferable to the prison method.
This attempts to reduce the conflict to a semantic one: one can claim that this isn’t really “slavery” per se, but a form of penal servitude, or even, a systems of “corrections” not only whose morality no one disputes, but which might warm the cockles of a bleeding heart, at least, if the term “slavery” hadn’t been used. However, it does not mitigate the question of the morality of a human being ever being reduced to the status of chattel. Also, because of the principle “hakoneh eved ivri kanah rav le’atzmo” (one who acquires a Hebrew “slave” acquires oneself a master)—one someone who is quick to proclaim his/her support of the morality of slavery from these halachos must be ready to equally support the halachos regarding the possible “spoiling” of one’s eved.
Then there's this:
Similarly, when we find the concept of slavery in the Torah, while we certainly may and should question and try to understand, it must be with the realization that our Torah is actually the only code of morals that we have that we can be certain is correct (based on our beliefs), and we must accept the Torah whether it fits into our own preconception of what is moral and what is not.
This talented author simultaneously tautologizes, whitewashes, AND begs the question. (This after the author engages in a series of questionable historical analogs between how Jews treated their slaves, vs how non-Jews treated their slaves; after he glosses over the posuk “ta’avidu bahem be’farech”; and, how he undermines his support for his own position by providing a link to a site that features the story of a prominent frum Civil War-era abolitionist who actively assisted escaped slaves.)
Dr. Ronen Ahituv, member of the Midrasha in Oranim, provides what might be a salient defense of the institution of slavery as a “good thing”:
When slavery is viewed as a normal and legitimate arrangement it may also serve as a model for the relationship between humans and God. It is a title of honor for the greatest of saints to be called "God's slave" (see Devarim 27), and the Jewish People as a whole is seen as a slave to God. It is not that slavery is prohibited in principle, but rather that God's slaves are enslaved to Him, and, therefore, they are not available to serve people. This is not a matter of a humanistic value, but rather of a religious value. As a result, classical Jewish texts do not call for the freeing of all slaves. Instead, they represent the Jewish People - and the Jewish People alone - as a nation of free men and woman. This freedom does not entail the rejection of all authority; rather it replaces the yoke of human authority with that of divine authority. The approach which recognizes servitude, which regulates it within a system of rights and obligations, prevents both cruel exploitation on the one hand, and illusions of nihilistic abandonment of responsibility on the other.
An entire novel, “Every Man A Slave”, written by Sender Zeyv, is dedicated to the concept of slavery as a good thing. From the publisher’s website:
The book primarily targets two of the social transitions that were indicative of the times, the abolition of slavery and the modernization (reform) of Judaism. To the adept reader, the Biblical attitude toward human bondage and how the institution fit in with meta-history, receives an in depth treatment. To those interested in the workings of the destruction of faith and immutable morality, the book offers, hopefully, satisfying explanations.
The implication that the abolition of slavery was a malign historical development analogous to the advent of Refrom Judaism would serve as the most salient Torah-bashing soundbite I’ve heard in years.
Closer to bridging the gap is Rabbi Eliezer Berkowits’ theory that he expounds “In Time And Torah”. He maintains, using Rambam’s suggestion in Moreh Nevuchim that G-d commanded the sacrifices for no other reason than to give man an outlet for his potentially idolatrous desires as a template, that the Torah did not outlaw practices that we may now find objectionable because the Jews were not yet ready to abandon them; one such example would be polygamy, which for the most part we eventually outlawed ourselves. Similarly with slavery: it may not have been realistic to outlaw a manner of socio-economic intercourse that was so widespread as to be the very backbone of trade at the time of Matan Torah, and there were limits to the isolation that the Torah wanted to impose on Bnei Yisrael.
This goes far, but not far enough. It attributes a built-in flexibilty to Torah that may or may not be there. For the record, I believe that it is, but just view the many aforementioned arguments to show how trenchant the idea remains that it is not.
So, I’ll take another template and work from there.
In "War Resistance in Jewish Law", in a collection entitled of essays entitled "Encounters”, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan marshals an array of sources to prove that Torah is actually fundamentally pacifist. His conclusions have been, for the most part, textually refuted, but his premise remains salient: if not outright assur, war is never morally desirable. The halachos governing war keep an already bad situation from getting worse.
I would make the same argument vis-à-vis slavery, combining Rabbis' Kaplan and Berkowits’ premises. The Torah, far from actually promoting slavery as morally beneficial, likely views its existence as a necessary evil, but morally suspect at best, repugnant at worst. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call practitioners of slavery in ALL eras as menuvalim birshus haTorah, although the very concept proves that there are some things that may be “muttar” but are morally repugnant, for whatever the reasons.) And like the prophecies that preach of the days that war will be eradicated, the Torah also yearns for the day of, to quote Dr. Ahituv above, the replacement the yoke of human authority with that of Divine authority.
But that’s not all.
I would also like to proffer another theory as to why the Torah would not insist upon the abolition of slavery. More than a universal moral code, the Torah is (obviously) Judeo-centric, and exists for us and our protection. The Torah might have been telling us, in a sense: Al tihyeh tzaddik harbeh. If you are the first to abolish slavery, don’t for a second think the rest of the world will follow your example and not enslave you when given the chance. Similarly with war: an insistence on pacifism as an absolute will result in your complicity in your own murders. To be sure, abolition and peace are good things. Let the rest of the world do it first; you do NOT have to stake your existence on it.
History bears this out. Slavery was never a good thing for anyone, but was nearly ineradicable. It took until 200 years ago for anyone to even contemplate its feasibility, and even now, when slavery is universally outlawed, it is estimated that 26 million people worldwide are enslaved in one form or other. Regarding the universal eradication of war, all we have to look at to understand the difference between theory and policy is the Kellogg-Briand pact.
The ultimate lesson, then, here is:
We come first. Always.
Becuase, as Yonatan Netanyahu said, if we don't take care of ourselves, no one will do it for us.