Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Biblical slavery and 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."


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. […] The modern moralist accepts personal autonomy and liberty as sacrosanct. In the conception of Netziv, however, the imposition of moral standards and monotheism is far more important, since only through moral practice and monotheist belief can any person fulfill his purpose on earth and return his soul to its divine source. Morality and monotheism accepted autonomously may be the ideal, but for a corrupt Ham and his descendants-both figurative and literal-a regulated and merciful system of slavery is a clear second best. One who views slavery only as a social institution may certainly find it terrible, and a Bible that supports it immoral; but Netziv, who sees slavery as a vehicle through which the pagan may participate to some degree in the covenant and commandments of Israel, justifies the sacrifice of personal liberty as worthwhile." […]

 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.


  1. Today people who sin against society are put in jail often for long periods. Children who kill are treated as adults and live a life behind bars. These prisoners are raped and destroyed at every level. How much better would it be for these people to be slaves and work in a normal household where they would be treated at least better animals who are not raped and ruined but rather cared for meticulously. Also, prisoners cost society a huge fortune and society cannot afford it. Slaves work their way and society does not have to suffer twice, once from their crime and then to support them for years.

  2. Which criminal would your wife allow in the house? Or have you volunteered to watch him 24/7?

  3. If we refrain from an anachronistic projection of modern Western values onto a continuous legal and moral literature that predates those values, the rabbinic views Rabbi Shmalo cited might become less incendiary.

    In addition the the comparative study of talmudic and rabbinic literature mentioned by the author, it would be useful to place the Jewish views in a larger context; slavery has been part of the human condition virtually everywhere up until very recently. (As such, it shouldn't shock us that halacha regulates it.) For example, in his essay "The Real History of Slavery," Thomas Sowell notes:

    "It was not until the late eighteenth century that there was even an intellectual movement, much less a political movement, for the abolition of slavery, and those in these movements were distinctly in the minority, even in the West—and had no counterparts outside the West. What was historically unusual was the emergence in the late eighteenth century of a strong moral sense that slavery was so wrong that Christians could not in good conscience enslave anyone or countenance the continuation of this institution among themselves or others. Nor was this view confined to religious leaders or congregations. Adam Smith in Britain and Montesquieu in France were among the secular intellectuals who wrote against slavery in the eighteenth century.

    Slavery was one of a number of long-standing institutions and traditions which were being questioned in the eighteenth century in the West. Before then, both secular and religious philosophers going back to Plato had seen the mundane physical world as being far less important than the ideal or spiritual world, so that being right and free in one’s mind was more important than one’s fate in the physical world." (1)

    He concludes:

    "It was not because people thought slavery was right that it persisted for thousands of years. It persisted largely because people did not think about the rightness or wrongness of it at all. In very hierarchical societies, where most people were born into their predetermined niches in the social complex, slaves were simply at the bottom of a long continuum of varying levels of subordination based on birth. Even in colonial America, white indentured servants were a major part of the population and they were auctioned off just like black slaves. It was the rise of modern free societies and their accompanying ideologies in the West which made slavery stand out in stark contrast, and it was the emergence of a general questioning of institutions and beliefs in the eighteenth century—also in the West—that brought slavery into question. Once that happened, slavery could not stand up under moral scrutiny. Outside the West, it did not have to, at least not until after the spread of Western ideas of individual freedom belatedly took hold in some other societies. That such an institution could last so long unchallenged, on every inhabited continent, is a chilling example of what can happen when people simply do not think." (2)

    1. Sowell, Thomas (2009-05-01). Black Rednecks & White Liberals (Kindle Locations 2439-2451). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

    2. ibid. (Kindle Locations 3189-3198)

  4. There are people in jail who are dangerous and there are places for them, use a bit of imagination, and there are people in jail who are not dangerous. I would not let anyone in my house who belongs in jail for any reason, but the person in jail, if he had a choice, would rather toil in a protected environment than be a thing raped and who knows what for years behind bars which is probably cruelty even for animals.

  5. Dear Rabbi Eidensohn, there's a sefer written by R' Zadoc Kahn, the chief rabbi of France in the 19th century, titled העבדות על פי התורה והתלמוד, analyzing

    ״משפטי העבדים העברים והכנענים ע״פ חקי התורה הכתובה ודיני התלמוד והפוסקים, ערוכים בדרך ההגיון ומוארים באור החקירה בתולדות ישראל והשוית משפטי העבדים אצל העמים הקדמונים״

  6. There is a similar analysis regarding Eliezer eved Abraham, and his interactions in parshat chayei Sarah.

    This was his purpose in life, to serve and learn from Abraham Avinu. After all, what happened with him, and his descendants.

  7. Does Torah define the ideal, Godly society, or does it teach us how to live a Godly life in any society? Because if the latter, it must necessarily provide rules for the treatment of slaves in a slave holding society. Of course, the Torah is a mixture of both elements. There is no command to have a slave holding society, so one need not even infer that the Torah sees positive value in the institution--it provides regulations for where it exists.

    If one wants to address real clashes between Torah and Western morality, look to where the Torah commands something. The wars with the 7 nations and Amalek would be a good place to start.

  8. "Thus, for example, the murder of a slave was a capital crime,
    with all due respect,the murder of a non jew or a slave is NOT a capital crime,of course this itself is very problematic for a fair minded person.
    As for your reasoning that slavery was an economic necessity and that is why it was moral is just laughable ,please tell me you were not serious

  9. Rabbi Eidensohn,with all due respect a non jewish slave is not a criminal who has been punished for his transgressions,but an unfortunate human being who has been either bought from a non jew in a transaction just like you would buy cattle,or he is a slave as a result of being captured as spoils of war,
    It is an EVED IVRY,a jewish slave who is sold by BEIS DIN if he has stolen and cannot repay,then he must to work it off,you have mixed up these two

  10. The murder of a slave (עבד כנעני), including one's own slave, is indeed a capital crime. See Rambam, Hilchos Rotzeiach 2:10-11.

    As for my statement that that which is necessary cannot be immoral, I was quite serious. A society cannot be morally required to self-destruct, and any ancient civilization that completely prohibited slavery would have collapsed or been conquered.

  11. You mention R' Uziel--who is this?

  12. I am sure that many masters have had slaves like this. The problems arise when you have more than one or two. You're no longer a "mentor."

  13. Wow. Check that. Eliezer answered you substantively, but now I'll do that ethically. Why is problematic that murdering a goy is not a capital crime? In the American system we have all sorts of special circumstances that make the crime more or less morally reprehensible to incur capital punishment. E.g., in some states, murdering a family member. That's what's happening there. There is something much worse about a person who murders his own family (i.e. a fellow Jew). Doesn't mean it's not murder. And certainly not "VERY problematic for a fair minded person," even if you find it SLIGHTLY problematic.

  14. You are right theoretically and in general, but practically you can't tell me it was ever NECESSARY. It was easier. It made larger economies easier or PERHAPS even possible. That in no way made it NECESSARY.

  15. I do think the prison population should be used (slavery?) more than it currently is. Although they do have division that produce government furniture and, if they're really good, in California, they become part of fire abatement.

    But the problem is of you have more than a few in any one location, necessary for the sheer number of prisoners that we have, they will rape each other. Not sure why your slavery is an answer to that. I am sure there was rape etc. on the plantations. And those weren't the worst of the worst that we have in prison here.

    That said, as long as they're raping and killing each other, why not get more work from them? It certainly is better than what they currently do.

    See this recent opinion for a view into our lovely prisoners.
    And this is a MAXIMUM SECURITY prison. Imagine what a regular state prison looks like. I know, i prosecute these cases.

  16. When dealing with a large scale economy, that which is"easier" is often necessary for survival. Those societies that are able to make more efficient use of their resources have a major advantage over those that do not, and will eventually dominate (usually through outright conquest).

    Any ancient civilization that completely rejected slave labor would have been conquered in short order by its more powerful neighbors and itself enslaved.

    I don't think any viable argument can be made that slavery, in of itself, was simply a matter of convenience in ancient times. There is a reason that slavery was once universally practiced. If there were any ancient civilizations that attempted to eschew slave labor, they did not survive long enough to leave any historical record. Only slave-holding civilizations survived.

    This is not to say that slavery doesn't have a severe downside for the civilization. Over time, slave holding societies tend to become brutalized and to develop a deeply unhealthy attitude towards work. In the long term, these issues can eventually contribute to the weakening, or even the collapse, of the civilization.

  17. That is contradictory. On one hand you're saying slavery was absolutely necessary. And on the other hand you're saying it can contribute to the civilizations collapse. But you said just in the paragraph prior that not having slaves will contribute to civilizations collapse.

    Brutal civilizations are independent of their slave-holding status. You've had many non-slave holding civilzations that were brutal. And Jewish civilization was not brutal despite having slavery.

    In any event, there is no need for any apologetics as to why slavery is okay. The Torah says it is okay and that is reason enough, even if civilization did not depend on it or need it.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.