the article about Commonsense Morality
Excerpts from "Orthodox Approaches to Biblical Slavery" by Gamliel Shmalo - which appeared in The Torah u-Maddah Journal Volume 16 2012-2013
Recent popular and aggressively anti-religious books have highlighted the Bible's sanctioning of slavery as evidence of the Bible’s immorality.' One striking example can be found in a bestselling and deliberately provocative book by journalist, author, and political commentator Christopher Hitchens, who argues that the ethics of the Bible lead the sensitive modern thinker not so much to atheism as to "anti-theism:"
By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it. The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.'
Given the enormous outrage and repulsion that the modern Western world feels toward slavery, arguments like Hitchens' find fertile ground.
Not all readers of the Bible have been moved to throw down an atheist gauntlet in the manner of Hitchens. Recent progressive theologians point to biblical slavery, along with animal sacrifice and the prohibition against homosexuality, as a moral anachronism that the Western world has out grown. Unlike atheist critics, these progressive theologians are unwilling to reject their biblical traditions outright; in fact, they claim to take much inspiration and guidance from these traditions. Nevertheless, they find so many gaps between their modern moral sensitivities and the particular commandments and institutions of the Bible that their divergence from those institutions appears systemic. For example, in an article supporting the concept of single-sex marriage, Reform rabbi Devon Lerner points to biblical slavery as a basis for concluding that "Our world is very different from the world of the biblical times, and so all of our religious practices and interpretations of the Bible have necessarily changed and evolved through the centuries."
Orthodox Judaism has its share of morally sensitive thinkers, and they also have had to deal with the Western outrage over biblical slavery; naturally, in order to remain Orthodox, they have not been moved, as Hitchens was, to reject the Bible as primitively mammalian. They are therefore left with the task of resolving the conflict between the modern moral outcry against slavery and the Bible's obvious sanction of the institution. Among Orthodox Jewish thinkers of the modern period, several creative-and sometimes mutually exclusive-approaches to this contradiction have emerged. Some have reinterpreted the biblical system in order to render it less offensive; others have questioned the moral superiority of the anti-slavery position; still others see biblical slavery as one of a few ephemeral accommodations to particular historical circumstances that the Western world has thankfully outgrown. This paper will examine these Orthodox approaches. […]
Rav S. R. Hirsch (Shemos 12:44): The consideration of certain circumstances is necessary, correctly to understand the fact that the Torah presupposes and allows the possession and purchase of slaves from abroad to a nation itself just released from slavery. No Jew could make any other human being into a slave. He could only acquire by purchase people who, by then universally accepted international law, were already slaves. But this transference into the property of a Jew was the one and only salvation for anybody who, according to the prevailing laws of the nations, was stamped as a slave. The terribly sad experiences of even the last century (Union, Jamaica 1865) teach us how completely unprotected and liable to the most inhuman treatment was the slave who in accordance with the national law was not emancipated, and even when emancipated, wherever he was, looked upon as still belonging to the slave class, or as a freed slave."
The consideration of certain circumstances is necessary, correctly to understand the fact that the Torah presupposes and allows the possession and purchase of slaves from abroad to a nation itself just released from slavery. No Jew could make any other human being into a slave. He could only acquire by purchase people who, by then universally accepted international law, were already slaves. But this transference into the property of a Jew was the one and only salvation for anybody who, according to the prevailing laws of the nations, was stamped as a slave. The terribly sad experiences of even the last century (Union, Jamaica 1865) teach us how completely unprotected and liable to the most inhuman treatment was the slave who in accordance with the national law was not emancipated, and even when emancipated, wherever he was, looked upon as still belonging to the slave class, or as a freed slave."
Netziv accepts slavery as being in the moral and religious interest of the pagan. While R. Hirsch and R. Uziel reinterpret the laws of slavery and then show how purchase by a Jew is to the existing slave's benefit, Netziv justifies the entire institution of slavery by appealing to the religious benefit any gentile would derive from joining the nation of Israel, even in the limited and restrictive role as a slave. [….]
Sometimes, Netziv claims, slavery is the only way to help a vulgar person find positive religious expression in his life. For example, when discussing the curse of Ham, the son of Noah, Netziv writes that slavery fits the nature of Ham and his descendants. His comments are a response to the fact that although Noah cursed only Ham with slavery, many descendants of Shem and Japheth have also been enslaved, while at the same time many of descendants of Ham remain free. […]
R. Abraham Yizhak Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) was a close student of Netziv, and like his teacher, he unapologetically accepts slavery as just when controlled by the divine laws of the Bible and when practiced within the context of a merciful and moral society." R. Kook's acceptance of slavery is based on the premise that human beings are naturally and inevitably unequal-not in moral terms, as in the conception of Netziv, but rather in physical and economic terms. R. Kook argues that in order to prevent the strong from exploiting the weak, employers should be given an economic interest in the welfare of their workers, and this is best achieved when the latter are treated as property.
R. Kook cites the contemporary predicament of coal miners who, as free laborers, worked (and often still work) under horrible and sometimes tragic conditions. Were the mine owners to have an economic property interest in each individual worker, R. Kook argues, the owners would surely care for them better. When slavery is regulated by the laws of the Torah (which R. Kook understands to include not just the Bible but the oral tradition as well), the institution of slavery may, in fact, be the most merciful mode of life for such workers. Only when slave owners are cruel does the institution become monstrous; under such circumstances, it is better that there should be no slaves at all.
R. Kook is of the opinion that the laws of slavery are a noble, if not ideal, solution to a less than perfect economy. The ideal solution presumably would be merciful labor laws fulfilled by merciful people. Jewish law, however, recognizes that in reality, people will act in a way that is exploitative, and the Bible deals with this sad reality by prescribing slavery as one solution. As previously noted, however, in a world where people take cruel advantage, it is better to do away with that institution entirely. R. Kook's approach to slavery echoes his approach towards other Jewish laws-they are directed at people who are basically righteous, but who still have the human failings of a pre-messianic age. […]
Like Netziv, R. Dessler [4:247] notes that the source of slavery is rooted in the biblical Ham's moral corruption. Noah's reaction to Ham's act of violence, according to R. Dessler, indicates that the institution of slavery was in tended to enable a "small" person to perfect himself by becoming a "vessel for a great" person." Nevertheless, like R. Kook, R. Dessler disavows the practical utility of slavery in his contemporary world. He explains that over the course of history, the originally constructive relationship between slave and master changed for the worse, so that the relationship became defined less by moral superiority and more by inequalities of power in which the weak became the slaves of the strong. The powerful tried to justify their exploitation by taking on the external trappings of moral superiority-gentility and superficial manners-but these gestures were empty and often hypocritical. Ultimately, the slaves threw off their yokes to become the dominant cultural force themselves, sadly lacking not only moral excellence but even shallow manners.
R. Dessler's explanation traces a history of ethical degeneration, from true moral leadership to exploitation supported by superficial and hypocritical moralizing and from empty exploitation to bald immorality. Without question, the world should be freed from the grip of hypocritical masters, moralizers, and imperialists, but in practice, we have found ourselves in an even worse state.
While R. Hirsch views emancipation as a step along the road of social progress, R. Dessler sees it as just the opposite. This description of slavery parallels his general perspective on historical degeneration, yeridat ha-dorot;" a perspective grounded in classical rabbinic literature39 which defines, to some degree, more right-wing Orthodoxy." Modern man rages against slavery because he knows it only in its corrupted and cruel form. Were we to witness this institution as the Bible intended for it to be practiced, for the physical (R. Kook) or moral/spiritual (R. Dessler or Netziv) benefit of the slave, even modern man would agree that this is a useful institution. […]
The moral outrage that modern thinkers share against slavery has elicited widely different responses to the moral status of biblical slavery. Not only are there differences between the religious and the anti-religious, but there are differences even within the ranks of Orthodox Jewry. This subject highlights various Orthodox perspectives on history: some Orthodox thinkers lament the loss of a potentially valuable social instrument due to the moral decline of society throughout history, while others point to emancipation as a sign of moral progress. Even more centrally, our examination of the topic shows the varying degrees to which Orthodox thinkers acknowledge the moral values of their contemporary society and the different models with which they confront those values. Some are more apologetic, limiting biblical slavery so that it conforms to modern conceptions. Others assert that the Bible contains moral accommodations that society has transcended. Interestingly, even conservative thinkers-who justify slavery by pointing to the social, economic, moral, and spiritual benefits it gives to the weak and the vulgar-may have been moved by modern conceptions to justify slavery in accordance with those conceptions. Accepting that only a direct benefit to the slave himself could be an acceptable justification for enslavement, almost all would agree that the practical application of this once normative institution would be unthinkable today. Of course, the most conservative rabbis might argue that their approaches are informed only by unchanging biblical values, that their views have always been the Jewish view [55. Indeed, among the great medieval Jewish thinkers, slavery for life was justified based on the religious needs of the Jewish master, a position that I have not found among the modern commentators. See, for example, Sefer ha-Hinnukh, commandment 347, "To work a Canaanite slave forever."] , and that they have not been influenced by modern notions of egalitarianism. These claims would have to be tested by a comparative study of the talmudic and medieval rabbinic literature on this subject - a study that would beyond the scope of this paper.