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Where Moses differed from Aristotle . . .

Whenever examining the history of slavery in the Bible, it is always fascinating to contrast it with other views found in the ancient world. When we look specifically at the writings of Aristotle, in his Athenian Constitution and in his work on Politics, one discovers that the great Athenian philosopher believed that some people are only fit for subjugation, while others are naturally destined for dominance and rule.

Slavery, argues Aristotle, is fact of nature—regardless how  one wishes to rationalize it. The slave is nothing more than an animated tool, to be used or disposed of at the whim of the master, much like a ship captain uses a crew and the ships rudders.

And so it was in ancient Rome, where 4/5 of the population were considered, “slaves.”

When we look at the parsha this week, several aspects of biblical slavery strike the critical eye. To begin with the Hebrew slave is never the property of the owner. He is his own person. The master is entitled to benefit from his labor only for a period of six years. Moreover, according to the book of Deuteronomy, the slave is entitled to severance pay in the form of clothing, food, and money when he leaves. Slavery is far from an ideal; it is at best a temporary stop measure to help the Israelite slave repay debt to his creditors. The laws governing slaves also comes with numerous other limitations.

• It is forbidden to give an Israelite a demeaning jobs (“You shall not compel them to serve in menial work; you shall not rule him with rigor” (Lev.39, 46). A master must always respect the slave’s dignity as a human being.

• A slave’s physical needs must be addressed by his master “He has it good with you” (Deut. 15:12-15), which the Sages interpret to mean providing food, drink, and even conjugal relations. Even when a slave leaves, the master is required to provide him with the necessary means to make a new life so he will not return to his previous impoverished condition, “you shall weight him but shall weight him down with gifts from your flock and threshing floor and wine press, in proportion to the blessing the LORD, your God, has bestowed on you” (Deut.  15:12).

• One must be so attentive to a slave’s needs that if there is one pillow in the house it must be given to the slave, a point which led the Sages to say: whoever buys a slave has bought himself a master. The same applies no less to food; if the owner has white vs. dark bread, the slave always gets the superior quality bread. Subsequent halachic rulings insist that a master is obligated to even take care of the slave’s family, if he was married–at no extra cost to the slave.

Should a person discover a runaway slave on his property, he is not to turn the slave over to its master. The precise identity of the slave is unclear; it may even be speaking about a  foreign person who ran away from his master from a foreign country. The Torah is reiterates itself for importance: “Do not molest him” (Deut. 23:16-17).

One might raise a moral question on the text that is ethically unavoidable: If the institution was considered far from desirable, why didn’t the Torah outlaw it altogether? When asked in different terms, “How could a group of ex-slaves take it upon themselves to become masters over their own brethren?”

Considering the traumatic experience our ancestors experienced in Egypt, surely the Torah should eschew all forms of slavery after the traumatic experience of the Jewish nation at the hands of their Egyptians captors.

The great Karaite biblical scholar Hacham Aharon ben Eliahu explains that for a newly emancipated people, the memory of their former experience as slaves was fresh in their minds. The laws governing slavery thus becomes a litmus test as to whether the ethos of the Exodus experience would forever change the way they in turn relate to the economically marginalized and the disenfranchised members of its society. At the same time, the laws about the treatment of slaves historically served a purpose. Rather than proscribing the institution, the Torah seeks to establish parameters that will maintain and protect the dignity of the worker.

The Greeks and Romans regarded God as the Creator of the cosmos, but only in Israel, did the ancient Israelites proclaim that God is also a Liberator. Israel’s memory of the Exodus becomes the moral basis for how they are to treat those dependent upon them. Anyone who kills a slave in cold-blood forfeits his own life in return. Anyone who kidnaps a slave is tried and executed in a court of law. As Philo of Alexandria writes, slavery is a living death for a man who was born to be free. The human face of a slave speaks volumes; but not with audible words. The face of a slave demands that we treat that person with complete dignity and with respect.

Slavery is still practiced in much of the world, from Asia, to the Middle East and Africa. Yet, one we need not go far as Africa to find harsh and humiliating conditions of slavery. Trafficking women is a loathsome plague which has spread from Asia to our own country, the United States, Europe, and surprisingly Israel.

Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

So long as people are stripped of their human dignity and personal freedom–it doesn’t matter what name we designate them by. Slavery is slavery by any other name.



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