Freeing Today’s Slaves
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” These words from our parashah (Leviticus 25:10) are famously inscribed upon the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and they have resounded as a message of hope for the oppressed throughout the world. Yet our parashah also contains a darker message that endorses slavery, just as America has paired proclamations of liberty with cruel practices of slavery and discrimination throughout its history. In the same chapter of Leviticus, we read that non-Israelite residents of the land may be acquired as permanent slaves, and may be kept “as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time.”
What are we to make of this contradiction in our parashah? Why does the Torah view slavery as anathema for Israelites but acceptable for their neighbors? We might expect to find a rationale based on the assertion of religious, racial, or at least ethnic superiority, but none of these concepts is present in Leviticus. Rather, our portion offers a theological explanation: Israelites may not become permanent slaves to other people, whether kinsmen or strangers, because they are already slaves to another master—the Lord who redeemed them from Egypt.
That’s right. The exodus from Egypt is not, in this telling, about the rejection of slavery as a moral outrage, but rather about God’s exclusive ownership of the people of Israel. The chapter emphasizes this point in its final verse: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (Lev. 25:54). On this basis, Jews have always been active in liberating enslaved Jews but have often acquiesced to and have periodically participated in the enslavement of non-Jews throughout history, right up until the American Civil War.
Following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and then more completely in the 13th Amendment, American law forbade slavery. Jewish law submitted to civil law under the principle of dina d’malkhuta dina, that financial rules are determined by the government, but there was no mechanism for a Jewish version of an emancipation proclamation until the birth of Israel.
The State of Israel lacks a constitution, but in its 1948 Declaration of Statehood and, more explicitly, its 1992 Basic Law: Human Liberty and Dignity, it makes the following statement: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free.” This is a powerful moral and legal statement of which we Jews should be particularly proud.
Despite these bold American and Israeli statements, slavery has not disappeared—not in 1865, not in 1948, not in 1992, nor even today. Various forms of slavery continue to be practiced, as documented by Benjamin Skinner in his recent book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern Slavery. Skinner follows the modern slave trade on five continents, from sex-trafficking to the sale of children into forced labor. In the book’s opening, he narrates his tale of flying from New York City to Haiti and buying a boy within five hours of departure. Skinner claims that there are more people living in slavery today than at any other time of history. This moral outrage exists nearly everywhere, including in America and in Israel. In both countries, migrant workers live in a perilous legal state and are vulnerable to predatory behaviors by employers who withhold pay with impunity. Fortunately, Israel has an active human and civil rights community, and the Israeli Supreme Court recently issued a ruling to protect such workers.
There are many reasons to celebrate Israeli Independence as we did this week. Among them is the unprecedented opportunity for the Jewish people to exercise a collective moral action such as Israel has done with its Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. No prior Jewish source has said as clearly what this law said—that slavery is forbidden across-the-board for all people. As Jews, we should be proud of this clear document, but more than pride is asked of us. The antislavery sentiments of modern democracies such as Israel and the United States must be translated into a reality in which the enslavement and even subjugation of any human being becomes impossible.
Perhaps the Bible can, after all, be the foundation for this change. Slavery, it shows, is wrong because for one human to claim ownership of another is to deny the divine prerogative. It is not only the Jewish people who are “owned” by God. The book of Psalms says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants” (24:1). Any religious person who would participate in the subjugation of another human being must be reminded that this is an outrage not only to humanity but also to God.
The Jewish task is to proclaim this message, to oppose enslavement and oppression, and to stand for liberty and dignity for all. We must name these ideals, confront the ugly reality of continued enslavement, and dedicate ourselves to fulfilling the broader mandate, which began with: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10)!
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.