Why does the Torah sanction slavery?
Now let’s understand that we’re living in a time when all the standards are measured by the fad of the day. What is today important was yesterday unknown and tomorrow will be unimportant. So therefore even though slavery today is considered as something to be abhorred, you have to realize this wasn’t the case in ancient times among Jews.
First of all, among gentiles in ancient times, what should a person do who had no livelihood? He had no land. Land was passed on from father to son. Suppose you had no land. You had no family. You were a stranger. It happens sometimes that you’re a stranger. What should you do? You would die of starvation. So Eliezer eved Avraham who wanted to become a loyal disciple of his great teacher, what did he do? He gladly became an eved.
In those days to become a slave meant you were being joined to the family in a certain status. Hagar gladly became a shifchah to Sarah. It meant joining the family. She was a member of the family. In those ancient days, in case the woman, the ba’alas habayis, was childless, so she gave her handmaid to her husband and he had children from her. That’s how it used to be back before the Torah was given. Slavery had a different face in the ancient days.
And so, among Jews slavery meant that a person became a member of the family. First of all, the slave had to circumcise. He had to go to tevilah. He had to become a Jew in a certain sense. All slaves had to keep the Torah.
A slave couldn’t be beaten because he could have recourse through the dayanim; and even when a person had to chastise the slave, even if he was hitting him for a reason, if he was careless and he knocked out a tooth or some other one of the twenty-four chief limbs then the slave could march out a free man. And if the owner killed a slave he was put to death.
Among Jews slavery was an institution like the family. And therefore the slaves were much better off – and you could judge this from the following: Suppose a Jew bought a slave who refused to circumcise. So the Jew could say to him “I’ll sell you back to the gentiles.” That was considered a threat. And in almost every case the slave was willing to circumcise.
And therefore to be a slave by the Jews in ancient times wasn’t what you imagine. The truth is that even in America slavery was not as bad as it’s described in that famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That was a propaganda book, and the book portrays it a hundred times worse than it actually was. The fact is that the slaves were much better off than after they were liberated. And some of them even to this day are not yet living happy lives. They haven’t regained the ability to live a family life. Many of them are still living disorganized lives, which didn’t exist in the times when they lived on the plantation. But this I don’t want to press anymore because it’s already against public opinion. But among Jews there’s no question that slavery was an institution that fit into the social structure of Jewish life, and the eved Cana’ani, to some extent, lived a privileged life and he was protected by the Torah. And therefore there was no question then that slavery should have been sanctioned just as it was by the Torah.
TAPE # 172 (May 1977)