Defining a Moral and Just Society

Mishpatim By :  Judith Hauptman E. Billi Ivry Professor Emerita of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture Posted On Jan 22, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

Sometimes an article in the newspaper reminds you of something in the Torah and makes you think in new ways about verses you have read many times before. On January 2, 2014, the New York Times featured an article on its op-ed page about young girls in Haiti being sold into slavery by their families. Their story drew my mind to this week’s Parashat Mishpatim, which opens with a discussion of slavery, specifically the eved ivri (Hebrew manservant), and the amah ivriya, (Hebrew maidservant).

Parashat Mishpatim (Exod. 21–24) presents a very long series of laws. They range over many subjects—slavery, murder, dishonoring parents, inflicting damage on person or property, stealing, and finally kind treatment of widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

The traditional commentators are troubled by the apparent lack of logical order of the many laws. I also wonder why the rules of slavery head this long list. Many of the topics that follow are standard for a law code and even relate back to the Ten Commandments of last week’s parashah—not to strike or curse parents (21:15,17), not to murder (21:12), and not to steal (22:1). But why begin with slavery? The traditional answer is that since the Israelites had just been freed from slavery in Egypt, they should be sympathetic to the indignities suffered by slaves. The first of the Ten Commandments speaks of God taking the people out of Egypt, the house of bondage; and so slavery, in this reprise and expansion of the Ten Commandments, is mentioned first.

But I think there is a broader and deeper answer. Note that slavery begins the list, and laws regarding the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the resident non-Israelite appear toward the end (22:21–26). So bracketing the long series of laws is the sense that society can only function morally if it concerns itself with its most vulnerable members. As Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th-century Spanish commentator, says, when trying to understand the order in which the laws are presented, “the main principle is that a person should not commit an act of violence by applying force to someone weaker than he is. And the first instance of this is taking control of someone’s body and forcing that person to become a slave.”

Yes, this is the measure of a just society: it is one that protects those less able and less powerful from those who are more able and more powerful. In fact, all the laws of Mishpatim are variations of that same principle—not to take someone else’s life, body, or property. Once the Torah has laid down the principle of not exploiting the vulnerable, it can then go on to discuss the common topics of law codes.

But let’s think more about slavery. Parashat Mishpatim first speaks of a man, presumably destitute, who sells himself into slavery, and then of a father, also presumably destitute, who sells his daughter into slavery. The male Israelite slave, the eved ivri, goes free in the seventh year. The slave girldoes not. The terms of purchase are that the buyer himself, or his son, marry the girl, most likely taking her as a concubine (21:8,9). Should the man who bought her fail to do so, the Torah continues, she goes free without owing him any portion of her purchase price.

How do we respond to these stark words today? We could approach them as do the rabbis of the Talmud who note the Torah’s attempt at decent treatment of the girl. She might be better off as a maidservant in the family that purchased her instead of back with her own impoverished family. Wishing to impose even more humane restrictions, the Rabbis stipulate that a father may only sell a daughter who has not reached puberty; once a girl does reach puberty, she goes free if not yet married to her owner or his son. But the Torah’s words do not convey these helpful ideas. We later find in the book of Jeremiah that God asked the people to free all their Israelite male and female slaves (34:9), for no Israelite should serve as master to another Israelite, for only God is the master of them all. But the people did not listen, and kept their slaves.

When I recently read Nicholas Kristof’s article about young girls as slaves in Haiti (linked earlier) in light of these verses, I shuddered. What he describes is almost exactly what the Torah spoke of: impoverished families selling their young daughters to rich families. The poor family receives some money in exchange for the young girl. She gets some schooling paid for by the rich family. But the girls are slaves. They are often mistreated and exploited. Some escape and are able to start a better life for themselves. Many can’t. Such an institution, even with rabbinic limitations, is a reprehensible way to treat a girl. I know that the Rabbis of the Talmud stated that as a result of their legislation, anyone who purchases a Hebrew slave is actually purchasing a master for himself (Bavli Kiddushin 22a). As high-minded as that sounds, the reality of slavery in the modern world, and probably in the ancient world as well, is horrific. I wish the Torah (or Talmud or medieval Jewish law codes) had issued a clear statement—not just implied the idea by putting slavery at the top of the list—that, without exception, one human being has no right to own and enslave another.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.