Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Torah and Slavery: A Reflection for Parashat Mishpatim, Saturday 5 February 2016

Slave Workers in their Quarters in Dubai
Slavery is an ancient institution which existed for thousands of years before finally ceasing to exist in much of the world.  The United States of America eliminated it only in 1863 with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Now, over 150 years later, we Americans still discuss the lasting effects from allowing slavery in parts of the country for its first 87 years. 
In the west, many countries eliminated slavery earlier, but not much earlier.  Mexico ended it upon achieving its independence from Spain in 1810.  Spain itself ended it in its home territories and its overseas colonies, except Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, in 1811.  It was abolished in most of the British Empire in 1834.  Most European and South American countries outlawed it in the decades before the USA did.  But in much of Asia and Christian Africa, slavery survived until the early 20th century.  And in the Islamic world, especially Iran, Arabia and the Emirates, it survived until the 1960’s.  Officially, that is.  Having spent some time in Kuwait and Qatar, I can tell you that slavery thrives even today in those places.  Their governments conveniently look the other way.  Don’t get me wrong; human rights abuses, including human trafficking exist in much of the world.  But it is in the Persian Gulf where it exists openly in an ostensibly modern society.
          I offer this background on the elimination of the institution of slavery, having been involved this week in an interesting discussion regarding the apparent cruelty of G-d as depicted in the Torah.  The context was that the initiator of the conversation knew someone who had rejected a different religion.  And he was interested in learning more about Judaism, but the cruelty of the G-d of the Torah was serving as an impediment.  Slavery wasn’t mentioned specifically, but I thought of it because this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, includes laws concerning how one must treat one’s slaves.  That is to say:  the Torah regulates slavery but does not eliminate it.
          One wonders why the Torah didn’t eliminate slavery.  This, since it repeatedly invokes the experience of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt.  The Torah does not condemn slavery itself.  Rather, its complaint is against the unbounded cruelty it produces.  And its emphasis is the amelioration of that cruelty.  Rather than elimination of the institution that ostensibly feeds it.  Some would complain that that is tantamount to treating the symptoms, and not the underlying disease.
          But it isn’t really.  Slavery does not cause cruelty.  The ownership of human beings as chattel gives an opportunity for the unbridled expression of cruelty.  The Torah’s laws regulate that.  As they regulate cruel behavior in many other contexts.
          As I’ve said many times, it is important to look at the Torah’s legislation through a particular lens.  And that lens is a knowledge of the social context of the people Israel.  Their prior experience, before the wanderings in the wilderness.  And their destiny, to create a society based on the rule of G-d that will be a beacon of justice for all the neighbouring peoples to see and desire.  Things didn’t quite turn out that way.  But that’s another sermon, for another day.
          The elimination of slavery in much of the world has made life better.  When it is completely eradicated, life will be better still.  Tragically, a robust trade in household servants, and young women for prostitution, thrives.  There’s no question that it creates a stain on humanity that we do not approach eradicating such trade with more vigour.  It is heartening that awareness of such practices has increased in recent years.  When a man seeks the services of a prostitute in much of the world, he cannot do so without knowing that that woman was almost certainly trafficked – that she is in effect a slave.  Of course the ultimate goal would be for the trade to shut down for lack of customers.  That seems like an impossible goal.  But that does not absolve us of responsibility to pursue it.
          The sex trade aside, there are places where an apparent prosperity feeds on practices that approach slavery and often cross the line.  For example, some of the Persian Gulf states.  One goes to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, or the UAE and sees towering, glittering cities where one can live a lavish lifestyle, attended by fawning servants.  It’s true that oil and gas wealth feeds this opulence.  But it is also the servitude of vast numbers of third-world citizens who do all the hard and unskilled labour to make such opulence possible.  They sign long-term work contracts, hoping to find a better life than their lot in Bangladesh, or Pakistan, or the Philippines.  And they are often cheated, paid far less than they were promised, and held virtually hostage for years whilst being treated with grinding cruelty.  
When we fly on their airlines, vacation in their oases, or take jobs running their countries, we feed this cruelty.  Everybody knows someone who has gone to live in the Gulf and has made a killing, tax-free, working there.  Once, I attended a conference on the subject of religion helping to bring about a better economic order.  The conference’s sponsorship by the Emirate of Dubai ruined the whole thing.  It made a mockery of the good intentions expressed during the three days.
          The evidence before us shows that the world has a long way to go, to eliminating cruelty.  And whilst slavery is one source of that cruelty, it obviously is not the only one.  But the final and complete elimination of slavery in all its forms would, inarguably, make the world a far better place.

          It is easy to criticise Hashem because His Torah did not call for an elimination of slavery in its time.  But it is important to acknowledge that the Torah’s laws regulating the cruelest aspects of slavery did much to ameliorate the institution.  And set into motion a trajectory toward seeing human beings, even when in indentured servitude, as individuals deserving of compassion and dignity.  And that’s important.  Shabbat shalom.    

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