Abe Lincoln’s Slaves

Abraham Lincoln portraitWhat do you think of when you hear words like: kidnapping, human trafficking and slavery? Perhaps third world countries. Perhaps an era in the United States where things such as slavery were commonly practiced without a second thought. Yet as we enter this week’s portion we find the most “progressive” book of its time, a book that has mapped out the moral rites of much of humanity over the past 3 millennia seemingly filled with some outdated and almost embarrassing attitudes about slavery.

“And your Jewish slave shall work for six years…” How could a book that is meant to tout itself as the authority of ethics, morality, kindness and even Divine perfection incorporate a section full of the laws of slavery. The premise of the section is abhorrent to us and smacks of an archaic, out-of-date reality that makes it more than difficult for the modern mind to engage.

I would like to boldly posit that had Lincoln been privy to the other 50% of the Torah, even he would have agreed that the laws of the “slavery” of a Jew as detailed in our portion, are good and proper and perhaps should even be re instituted!

I know what you’re thinking. “The Rabbi has absolutely gone off his rocker. Oh, he’s from Missouri – the boarder state that was in the Missouri Compromise. He’s a confederate, lynch him!”

Hold on friends, hold your fire. Granted I enjoyed “the Dukes of Hazard” back in my day and its version of the “General Lee” but a confederate it does not make me.

Here’s where we go from a superficial understanding of the Torah to a broader more fuller appreciation for the depth and nuance of “the Good Book.”

Let us first make sure we are on the same page. The page I refer to is: The Talmud – the Oral Torah – the Torah which compliments and explains-not interprets-but explains the written Torah. The Oral torah, as Rabbi Hirsch notes is what a student’s long hand notes are in contrast to the short headers handed out by a professor at the beginning of class. The Oral Torah is the entire script of the courtroom drama that unfolds from the court stenographer’s contrived notations and coded shorthand to keep up with the court proceedings.

In our case, we turn to the Oral Torah to help flesh out the story of the Jewish slave at the beginning of our portion.

Let us begin this discussion with a question: Who or how did this slave become a slave? Which evil villain among the Jewish nation would stoop so low as to kidnap and steal his/her fellow tribesmen and force him into a life of backbreaking grueling labor?!

Answer: The Jewish bondsman of the portion is a thief who stole an amount that he is incapable of paying back. His loot has been…well, for a lack of better word, “looted.” That is, he’s used up all of the resources that he misappropriated and has no foreseeable way of returning the money. Thus, rather than having the blot of stolen goods forever etched as a spiritual stain, he has the benefit of working off the monetary balance of his wrongdoing.

How is this individual treated? Are the depictions of early American slavery matched by the Ancient Hebrews? Let us begin with a telling piece of Talmud: “Whoever acquires a Jewish slave, acquires for himself a master.”

What is meant by this statement? From the outset it appears that somehow the “slave” has dominion over his “owner.”

Let us take a look at some of the laws which surround this Jewish slave. From the outset, the law, as codified by Maimonidies, and based on the Oral Torah, the individual can only have the forced requirement to work for another in one of two ways: Either the court makes him responsible to work off what he has stolen OR due to a difficult financial situation he voluntarily sells himself to work for another Jew.

In this section of our discussion we’ll deal with the former case, the case where a person has stolen and will be paying back his dues by working…

The master is not allowed to have the servant perform any excruciating labor. Excruciating is defined as any work which has no definitive end. So, a master couldn’t tell the servant to “work until I get back,” it would require a prescribed, definitive time or amount of work.

The master is not allowed to have the servant perform any debasing acts: Debased in this context means anything that puts the servant on a “lower level” than the master. For example, “carry my clothing to the bathhouse” would be forbidden (no making him caddy for your golfing ventures either).

The master must only use the servant for the work of his competence/area of expertise prior to his moving in. So, if the worker is a tailor, the master can’t ask the servant tend his garden.

A master is obligated to treat any Jewish servant as his equal with regard to food, drink, clothing and living quarters. This means, if the master sleeps on a king size bed and eats steak every night, it’s the same for his “slave.” Only one pillow available, guess who it goes to? You guessed it…the slave.

If the servant is married, it becomes the master’s obligation to fully support the family of his slave. If family works and produces, the earnings go to…the family of the servant(!) – even though the master is required to support them(!) (This sounds like how my kids make money on their lemonade stand.)

Why am I telling this to you? Because oftentimes people lump preconceived notions they hear about the Torah and prematurely label it “archaic,” “primitive,” and “obsolete.” I wanted to preempt Lincoln’s well known quip: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. Now you can safely speak up.

Shabbat Shalom