There are a lot of things right about religion. I’m no fan of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. However, there is no arguing that religion hasn’t been responsible, to some extent, for underpinning, guiding, or perpetuating some of humankind’s worst ethical choices. Near the end of parashat B’har, we find a case in point.
The verses Lev. 25:39-46 tell us that we may not make our fellow Israelites slaves (though we can treat them as hired or bound laborers until the Jubilee year or they are redeemed by their kinsmen for a fair price based on the proximity of the redemption to the year of Jubilee) but that we can have slaves acquired “from the nations around you” or purchased from resident aliens living among us. These slaves we may keep as property and inheritance – the Jubilee is meaningless for them. The text tells us we may not rule ruthlessly over our kinsmen. By implication, this means that we can rule ruthlessly over our non-Israelite slaves.
Whoa. Think about this the next time you go singing “avadim hayinu.” Why was the ethical precept “you shall not enslave another human being” an outgrowth of our having been ruthlessly treated slaves in Egypt?
While we are fond of speaking of biblical slavery with the euphemistic comparison to indentured servitude, this was applicable only to Israelites who were slaves to other Israelites. Non-Israelite slaves were slaves. Period. The Rambam (Maimonides) says quite clearly that we can be cruel to non-Israelite slaves, but that we should be compassionate instead. Our tradition is replete with such apologetics.
While preparing this musing, I came across an article on Chabad.org (not usually my goto place, but I do try to research sources across the widest possible spectrum of ideas) that offered an interesting rationale for why the Torah permitted slavery. The executive summary version is this: if the Torah told us everything we needed to know, it would never be real to us. Torah starts with the world as is, and gives up the opportunity to evolve to a better understanding.
The OU has a similar article (though for parashat Mishpatim) written by former Chief Rabbi of Britain Lord Sacks best summed up by this quote:
“So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will.”
At first it seems an enticing idea. Unlike the thoughts of Rabbi Lord Sacks, the interpretation in the Chabad article credits the Oral Torah as being the real guide for humankind, superior, it almost suggests, to the Torah itself. (The cynic in me wants to scream “yeah, of course the oral Torah appears superior to the Torah because it finds all the mistakes, conflicts, contradictions, ethical quandaries, and whitewashes them, sanitizes them, explains them away, talks circles around them, rewrites them, or outright contradicts them. But it also just makes up a lot of sh*t.)
So I can agree with the idea, and it is one I have espoused myself, that sometimes the troubling things in Torah are there just to trouble us, and perhaps leads us to a better way of thinking, a more compassionate, just, or loving approach.
Rabbi Lord Sacks, in commenting on Mishpatim, notes that it contains some very positive laws about the treatment of slaves – but he doesn’t note this applies only to Hebrew slaves to other Hebrews. He suggests, however, that these laws pertaining to Hebrew slaves set the stage for future abolitionists.
Rabbi Lord Sacks can be a persuasive writer. He closes his article thusly:
Yet slavery was abolished in the United States, not least because of the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, who wrote those words, was himself a slave-owner. Yet such is the latent power of ideals that eventually people see that by insisting on their right to freedom and dignity while denying it to others, they are living a contradiction. That is when change takes place, and it takes time.
If history tells us anything it is that God has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished but he wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.
I cannot read these words without finding some wisdom in them. At the same times, they play right into the hands of the anti-religionists who might suggest that had G”d gotten to the point from the beginning by saying “no war, no slavery, no capital punishment, no oppression, no cheeseburgers” (sorry I just couldn't resist throwing in that last one) we might have been a whole lot better off a lot faster. Or it allows them to easily argue that these same ethical precepts evolving were simply a matter of time, and we didn’t need religious texts spurring us on to the task.
The kabbalists might have a somewhat different take, seeing the Torah as representative of the world in its most imperfect state from the shattering of the vessel. Finding the shards and repairing the vessel. (An idea that, by the way, dangles precipitously over the cliff of original sin.) This, too, in a way, argues for progressive improvement over (a long period of) time.
It’s the time scale aspect of all this that makes the “deliberate inducement to progressive moral improvement” theory simultaneously the most palatable yet also most attackable. Just tell us what you mean G”d! Stop beating around the bush. (It’s like that old joke about Moses trying to understanding “not boiling a kid in it’s mother’s milk.”)
Here’s the thing. We sometimes look back on our history and consider our ancestors more primitive. The fact is, it is quite possible, even likely, that they had the same intellectual and philosophical curiosities as we do, and their moral development was not as hampered as we think it was. Well, according Hitchens and Dawkins and others, their moral development was stunted by religion.) If the Torah had not permitted slavery, might we have come to be a better world any faster? Or would Rome have just wiped out the Jews when they first encountered them because of the threat of an anti-slave morality to their lifestyle?
It’s easy to say “don’t look back, look forward.” It’s also easy to say that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I was talking about all this with a rabbi friend today and he suggested that context really does matter. Our ancestors, in situ, might not have come to the same ethical and moral conclusions. Hitchens, Dawkins, Gladwell, et al, he thought, would not be saying then what they are saying now. Or, in any of these cases (pro/anti slavery/religion,) if they did, they would be a small, largely ignored voice in a huge sea of normative cultural practices.
Perhaps. I’m not convinced. An idea becomes an idea before its time only when that idea doesn’t take root at first. If extant cultural context truly prevents and hinders advances in moral thinking, why all that agony by Starfleet over the “prime directive?” One person with an idea can change the world. Again, it’s all about time scale. Remember James Burke’s series “The Day the Universe Changed.” Tell me that one person, ahead of their time, can’t actually bring about change. We know they can-though it can take time to yield results.
Which is the better tool, the better methodology? Accept things as imperfect as they are and hope that, over time, things will improve, or rant against the status quo and try to change it in your own time, even if the change might not actually happen until well after you are gone? Is the answer to that as obvious as the give a man a fish/teach a man to fish one?
Of course the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” school of thought supports the notion expressed by Rabbi Lord Sacks and Tzvi Freemen of Chabad of intentional progressive moral development. Make it too easy and we don’t appreciate it, don’t learn from it, don’t make it part of who and what we are.
I don’t know. I’ve no grand conclusions here. I only know that I still remain unsettled about and uncomfortable with excusing the Torah and religion for avoiding certain ethical teachings and lessons simply because of the cultural norms of its own time. The rational part of me understands that it is about choosing your battles, and yes, allowing for progressive moral improvement. The passionate part of me says “I want the messianic age, and I want it yesterday. In fact, I want it thousands of years ago! Oh wait, Some people thought it was coming thousands of years ago. And no, I don’t just mean the followers of that itinerant rabbi from the Galil. He was just quoting what our great prophets had already seen saying for centuries.
(It should also be noted that Islam is dealing with this same debate about slavery and how it written about in their sacred texts.)
We were slaves in Egypt, but now we’re free. but we can keep these other people as slaves. Not exactly stirring lyrics for a song to sing at our Seder, is it?
©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
B'har B'khukotai 5773 - In Smite Of It All
B'har-B'khukotai 5772 - Scared of Leaves (Redux & Revised 5769)
B'har-B'khukotai 5770 - Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 - The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd's Way)