My question is about slavery in the Torah. Why did the Torah allow it? It bothers me, though I know there must be some explanation.


Once in a while a question comes along that gets to the core of everything. Then along comes some smart-aleck to provide an answer and wash the whole thing away.

Questions such as these are not just holes in the ground waiting to be plugged up. They are invitations to spelunk deep beneath the surface, traveling all the way to the bedrock of our beliefs, challenging basic assumptions and redefining the landscape.

Your question is one of those bedrock questions: After all, isn't slavery the antithesis of Torah?

Torah begins with the creation of Adam in the Divine Image. The central event of the Torah narrative is the liberation of an entire nation of slaves from a cruel oppressor. Torah is about liberty, human dignity and respect for our fellow citizens of this planet for which the Creator cares so much. More than Torah is Man's discovery of G‑d, Torah is G‑d's discovery of Man and his world.

How can that same Torah that makes us kind permit oppressive labor of a fellow Divine Image? You'll note, too, that as soon as the Ten Commandments are done with, where does the Torah begin legislating? "If you will have a maidservant..."--with the rights of the most easily oppressed citizen, a young girl working in your home.

Let me point out another powerful weapon of social upheaval that the Torah espouses, especially through the medium of King David's collection of psalms: The Divine CEO open-door policy. A.k.a. "personal prayer": Any individual, indeed, any living creature, can at any moment, for any complaint, cry out to the Master of the Universe and his/her/its petition will be heard and acted upon. Guaranteed. "This poor man cries out and G‑d listens." You may not have thought about this, but those may just be the most radical, subversive and revolutionary words in history. Whereas the kings and priests of old would have their subjects believe that life is a grand chain of command with yours truly on top and you scum on the bottom, this idea of personal prayer flattened all hierarchies: Everyone is equally close to the top of the ladder.

Torah is not just about liberty, Torah liberates in a radical way. Yet here you have these laws about buying and selling slaves. What's going on?

Okay, they're not really slaves. Slaves are people owned by other people. In Torah law, you never have complete ownership over anything. These slaves rest on the seventh day and Jewish holidays, cannot be physically or sexually abused and are obligated in many mitzvot. So they are really more like indentured servants.

But that certainly does not answer our question: Why should any human being be deprived of rights and privileges that others have? Such as the right to live wherever they please, work for whoever they wish to work and quit whenever they want? How does this divvy up with the Torah's assertion that every human being bears the Divine Image?


Yes, there's tension here, and as every good dramatist and massage therapist knows, tension is a good point to play with.

The place we're going to start is Maimonides' Laws of Servants. Being the reckless, impatient souls that we are, we'll start from the very last words.

(You may ask, "Why the obsession with Maimonides? Is he the only authority on everything?"

No, he's not. But he's usually a great place to search for answers.

Maimonides wrote the only codification of the entire gamut of Jewish law-the Mishnah only includes those matters that were not common practice and could come to be forgotten. And the Shulchan Aruch includes only those matters that apply in the time of exile. And he wrote in a concise style with great precision.

Sure, he hit up against lots of controversy for a few hundred years. But eventually he was accepted as the foremost authority since the close of the Babylonian Talmud.)

So here goes:

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.

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 (Psalms 123:2), "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 L-rd our G‑d...]"?

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?"

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 He, 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 He, that we are commanded to emulate (Psalms 145:9): "And He has compassion for all He has made."

Furthermore, all who have compassion will be treated compassionately, as was stated (Deuteronomy 13:18), "He will give you compassion and He will have compassion upon you and multiply you."

(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Indentured Servants, 9:8)

Tightening the Screws

Reading superficially, you might imagine that Maimonides is presenting us with little more than apologetics. He seems to be saying, "The Torah says we can be real mean, but that's not nice, so we don't do that."

But I'm asking you to read his words a little more carefully. Look for the tension in those words. Tension is meaningful, tension indicates something deep going on: Here you have the Torah telling you to be kind and compassionate towards all G‑d's creatures. And this is not just a polite suggestion—this is a command:

"And you shall go in His ways!" (Deuteronomy 28:9)

"Is it possible to say such a thing? Rather, it means that since He is compassionate, you too must be compassionate. Since He is kind, you must also be kind. Since He dresses the naked and feeds the hungry, so must you....." (Midrash Sifri; Talmud, Sotah 14a)

--which Maimonides himself counts as one of the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah (Book of Mitzvot, Positive Commandment #8).

And then the same Torah says, "But you're allowed to be nasty to your slaves"!

The tension screws tighter: Why are we kind and compassionate? Because "the Holy One, blessed be He, gave us His Torah." So how can that same Torah that makes us kind permit oppressive labor of a fellow Divine Image?

How about a little consistency over here? Why can't the Torah start outright with the laws of servants, "If you have people working for you, you must treat them as equals. You must talk to them in a pleasant voice, listen to their complaints, feed them the same food you eat, provide employee benefits, regular vacations, perks and incentives, great office parties, stock options in the company, in-house professional massage therapy at lunch break and a sushi bar on every floor. If you don't like it, do the work yourself."

Why not? Because that would undermine the purpose of Torah.

The Purpose

Let me explain: (Notice that now we're getting down to that which I first promised—the bedrock.)

As we discussed, Torah is a radical element in our world. Torah is that which says, "This is not the way things are supposed to be. Do like this. Not like that." That's why Torah had to be given--we couldn't just figure it out on our own. Because to effect real change it must come from "outside the system."

On the other hand, Torah is the essence of all things. As the sages called it, "the blueprint of the universe." So the Torah effects change not by imposing an exogenous order, but by revealing the inner, hidden order latent within all things. Torah is very much like a good teacher, one who shows you who you really are—which may be very different, even the opposite, of who you think you are.

The Torah effects change not by imposing an exogenous order, but by revealing the inner, hidden order latent within all things. So the Torah, of necessity, has two faces. Unlike human wisdom which has one face. Human wisdom must either reject or accept the status quo. But Torah is a voice heard from beyond—and so it may have two faces at once.

On the one hand, the Torah speaks from a future that has yet to occur, inspiring us with its vision, pulling us toward that time.

On the other hand, the Torah must deal with the world as it is, not artificially imposing upon it a foreign mold, but bringing it on its own from the place it stands by nature and circumstance to the place it truly belongs.

Let's start simple:

Take an agrarian society surrounded by hostile nations. Go in there and forcefully abolish slavery. The result? War, bloodshed, hatred, prejudice, poverty and eventually, a return to slavery until the underlying conditions change. Which is pretty much what happened in the American South when the semi-industrialized North imposed their laws upon the agrarian South. And in Texas when Mexico attempted to abolish slavery among the Anglophones there.

Not a good idea. Better idea: Place humane restrictions upon the institution of indentured servitude. Yes, it's still ugly, but in the meantime, you'll teach people compassion and kindness. Educate. Make workshops. Go white-water rafting together. (Hey, why didn't Abe Lincoln think of white-water rafting?) Eventually, things change and slavery becomes an anachronism for such a society.

Which is pretty much what happened to Jewish society. Note this: At a time when Romans had literally thousands of slaves per citizen, even the wealthiest Jews held very modest numbers of servants. And those servants, the Talmud tells us, were treated better by their masters than foreign kings would treat their own subjects.

Torah teaches us how to run a libertarian society—through education and participation. Elsewhere in the world, emperors and aristocracy knew only how to govern a mass of people through oppression. Look what happened to Rome: When Roman slaves began demanding a day of rest among other privileges, along with talk of a personal relationship directly to G‑d, Emperor Constantine made sure to dismiss the whole concept of mitzvahs and human dignity by adopting a stripped-down, benign version of Judaism for his empire. That'll keep 'em quiet, he thought. (And it did, for about one thousand years.)

So the "conservative-radical" approach of Torah is this: Work with the status quo to get beyond it. Torah is more about process than about content.

Climbing Deeper

Are you satisfied with this answer? I'm not. I'm convinced there's a deeper effect that Torah is looking for. Call it "the participatory effect." A.k.a. nurture.

The Participatory Effect tells us that if you want people to follow rules, you put guns to their heads. But if you want them to learn, grow, internalize those rules and be able to teach them to others, you're going to have to involve them in the process of forming those rules.

School teachers do this when they work with their class on the first day to design rules that everyone will see as reasonable and useful. Parents do this when they allow their child to makes mistakes so that s/he will learn from them. A skilled wife is doing this when she gets her husband to believe that he came up with the idea of re-tiling the kitchen floor.

In general, this strategy comes more naturally to women than to men. Men find it much easier to shove their opinions down other people's throats and, if need be, argue the other into the ground until he surrenders. All variations of the old gun-to-the-head technique. Women are designed to nurture, physically and emotionally, so they take naturally to the participatory technique. To quote Gluckel of Hameln, "She was a true woman of valor. She knew how to control her husband's heart."

In Torah, both the masculine and the feminine approaches exist—they're called "The Written Torah" and "The Oral Torah." The Written Torah (principally, the Five Books of Moses, but also including all the Prophets and Scriptures) lays down the law in a fatherly, authoritarian voice. It says: "These are the rules. They are for you own good, whether you understand that or not. I only made them because I love you so much. If you don't like them, just remember that I'm a lot bigger than all of you put together."

Then along comes the mother of us all, the Oral Torah. Although the Oral Torah includes many fixed traditions—some originating from Moses and even earlier—the bulk of the Oral Torah is our own participation in the process of Torah. The Written Torah itself empowers us to discuss matters, expand on that which we have received, extrapolate and make decisions accordingly. It was concerning the Oral Torah that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania declared, "The Torah is not in heaven." It is here, within us, in our struggle to fathom the depths of our received tradition and in our ability to take Torah to the next step.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can make up whatever sounds nice to us and call it Torah. There are rigorous guidelines and a firm set of criteria for a novel idea to be considered Torah. We're dealing with a delicate ecology here—you have to understand the landscape very well before building a highway here and damming a river over there.

But what it does mean is that when you are working through a Torah idea, doing all that examining and letting the creative juices pour (within the guidelines mentioned above), those ideas within your brain and those words that you are speaking are no different than G‑d declaring, "I am the L-rd your G‑d, etc." at Mount Sinai.

When you are working through a Torah idea, those ideas within your brain and those words that you are speaking are no different than the words of the written Torah themselves. As those Talmudic sages put it, "Any new idea a qualified Torah student comes up with was already given to Moses at Sinai." The idea is new, but it's still Torah. It's new, because until now it was hidden deep within the folds and creases of the package Moses delivered. It's Torah, because all the qualified student did was unfold the package and smooth out the creases.

So if I come up with one of those bright Torah ideas one day, is it my idea or is it Torah? It's both. In the Oral Torah, we and G‑d become one.

Getting Real Change

So you can see where I'm getting to with the slavery thing. If G‑d would simply and explicitly declare all the rules, precisely as He wants His world to look and what we need to do about it, the Torah would never become real to us. No matter how much we would do and how good we would be, we would remain aliens to the process.

So, too, with slavery (and there are many other examples): In the beginning, the world starts off as a place where oppressing others is a no-qualms, perfectly acceptable practice. It's not just the practice Torah needs to deal with, it's the attitude. So Torah involves us in arriving at that attitude. To the point that we will say, "Even though the Torah lets us, we don't do things that way."

Which means that we've really learnt something. And now, we can teach it to others. Because those things you're just told, those you cannot teach. You can only teach that which you have discovered on your own.

History bears this out. Historically, it has been the Oral Torah, rather than the Written Torah, that has had the greatest impact on civilization. As much as Rome ruled over Judea, Jewish values deeply transformed Rome. One of the results was the legal privileges eventually granted to slaves and the gradual recognition of the value of human life.

Torah involves us in arriving at the right attitude. And now, we can teach it to others. Because you can only teach that which you have discovered on your own. For over a thousand years, the Church managed to subvert the message of Imagio Deo—that every human being is G‑dly—despite the repetition of the concept in the Genesis narrative five times. It wasn't until the Italian Renaissance that a new Humanist spirit dawned and the idea could no longer be repressed. "The Oratory on the Dignity of Man" is often touted as the manifesto of the Renaissance and early Humanism. It was composed by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. It's no secret that Pico studied under the greatest rabbis of his time and was obsessed with the Zohar and Kabbalah. There are many more such examples.

The greatest force in the emancipation of slavery in colonial times were the "Society of Friends," also known as the "Quakers." Historians discuss the phenomena of the Quakers in the context of the "Hebraizing of Christianity." Again, their leaders were deeply influenced by readings of the Kabbalah in translation and by humanists who had learned their ideas from rabbinic sources.

The history of emancipation is complex and long—and viciously controversial. In truth, Jews took roles on both sides of the prickly fence. Aaron Lopez, a convert to Judaism, brought slaves on some of his ships to America. On the other hand, Baron Nathan de Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore made possible the great Slave Emancipation Act of 1835 by granting 20,000,000 pounds sterling in loan subsidies. In the struggle, eventually the true Jewish spirit prevailed and it is those values that Maimonides espouses that eventually became dominant in our society.

I'll end off with a juicy biographical vignette of one Jew who struggled for the freedom of slaves:

August (Anshel) Bondi was born in Vienna, Austria July 21, 1833. He was the son of Jews who wanted him to have both a religious and a secular education. Caught up as a participant in the failed liberal revolution of 1848, the Bondi family fled to New Orleans and settled in St. Louis, Missouri. Young Bondi encountered, first hand, the horrors of slavery and was deeply disgusted.

In 1855 a New York Tribune editorial urged freedom-loving Americans to "hurry out to Kansas to help save the state from the curse of slavery." Bondi responded immediately. He moved to Kansas and along with two other Jews, Theodore Weiner from Poland and Jacob Benjamin from Bohemia, established a trading post in Ossa-watomie. Their abolitionist sentiments very soon brought pro-slavery terrorists upon them. Their cabin was burned, their livestock stolen. Their trading post was destroyed in the presence of Federal troops who did nothing. The three courageous Jews joined a rabid local abolitionist, to defend their rights as citizens and to help rid Kansas of the horrors of slavery. The Jews joined the Kansas Regulars under the leadership of John Brown.

In a famous battle between the Regulars and the pro-slavery forces at Black Jack Creek, with the bullets whistling viciously above their heads, 23-year-old Bondi turned to his 57-year-old friend Weiner and asked in Yiddish, "Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt?" (Well, what do you think of this now?) He answered, "Was soll ich meinen? Sof odem moves." (What should I think? Man's life ends in death.)

Kansas joined the union as a Free State. Bondi married Henrietta Einstein of Louisville, Kentucky in 1860. Their home became a way station for the underground railroad smuggling slaves to the North and freedom. The Civil War began in 1861, and Bondi enlisted in the Union army, encouraged by the words of his mother. He later wrote in his autobiography, "as a Jew I am obliged to protect institutions that guarantee freedom for all faiths." August Bondi died in 1907, a respected judge and member of his Kansas community.1