On January 4th, 1861, at the Lloyd Street Synagogue, Rabbi Bernard Illowy made the following remarks: “Who can blame our brethren of the South for seceding from a society whose government cannot, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union against the encroachments of a majority misguided by some influential… and selfish politicians who, under the color of religion and the disguise of philanthropy, have thrown the country into a general state of confusion, and millions into want and poverty?”
He continued, “If these magnanimous philanthropists do not pretend to be more philanthropic than Moses was, let me ask them, “Why did not Moses… command the judges in Israel to interfere with the institutions of those nations who lived under their jurisdiction, and make their slaves free…? Why did he not, when he made a law that no Israelite can become a slave, also prohibit the buying and selling of slaves from and to other nations? Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?… All these are irrefutable proofs … that the authors of the many dangers, which threaten our country with ruin and devastation, are not what they pretend to be, the agents of Religion and Philanthropy.”
Rabbi Illowy was drawing on passages, such as the ones we read today in shul, passages that indicate that slavery is not a sin, to justify the institution of slavery and to claim that those against it are against the Torah.
Two weeks later, another rabbi from Baltimore, Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai, penned a letter that described slavery as something the Torah tolerates but certainly does not elevate, something that is indeed at the very least, somewhat sinful. In his letter, he turned his wrath on the rabbis justifying slavery in the name of the Torah writing, “The Jew, a descendant of the race that offers daily praises to God for deliverance out of the house of bondage in Egypt, and even today suffers under the yoke of slavery in most places of the old world… undertook to designate slavery as a perfectly sinless institution, sanctioned by God?!”
Rabi Illowy was given a promotion after his speech praising slavery, Rabbi Einhorn lost his job and was literally chased out of town.
Let me ask you a question, you, Baltimore Jews of the 21st century, which one of these Baltimore rabbis was correct? Does the Torah endorse slavery, or does it paint slavery as an evil institution that is merely tolerated?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes as follows:
“[The Torah] does not say: abolish slavery… [However,] Is that not the whole point of the story thus far? Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. … Generations later, when a pharaoh arises who “knew not Joseph,” the entire Israelite people become Egypt’s slaves. Slavery, like vengeance, is a vicious circle that has no natural end. Why not, then, give it a supernatural end? Why did God not say: There shall be no more slavery?”
“The Torah,” he continues, “has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia. There is little doubt that in terms of the Torah’s value system the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity…
So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim (our Torah portion) does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord.”
To be very clear, Rabbi Sacks is NOT suggesting that Torah laws can change over time; prohibitions cannot be abolished. But in regard to slavery, something the Torah does not command us to involve ourselves in, it merely acknowledges, he suggests that the Torah sets in motion changes that will take place centuries later.
My gut reaction to Rabbi Sacks is that what he is writing is apologetics. It sounds, at first glance, to be a stretch. But when we study the laws of slavery in the Torah, I think you’ll see how compelling his point really is.
We don’t have the time for a deep-dive analysis, so let me share with you one law. We read today the following, “And if a person strikes the eye of his slave or the eye of his maidservant and blinds him, he shall send him free on account of the eye. And if he causes the tooth of his slave or of his maidservant to be knocked out, he shall send him free on account of the tooth.” If a slave-owner blinds his slave or even causes a tooth to be knocked out, the slave goes free. The Talmud interprets this to mean that if the master maims the slave in any way, he or she goes free.
Think about how novel this is. Remember the story of Shimshon/ Samson? What do the Philistines do to Shimshon when they capture him? They blind him. Remember the movie Gladiators or any movie depicting slaves in the Roman empire? Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek historian, described blinding slaves as the norm of his time.
In Hebrew, the term we use for a king’s slave is a sris. The word sris also means a eunuch, someone who was castrated. The two became synonymous because kings would regularly castrate their slaves to ensure that their wives were safe. This was the norm.
Slave masters would regularly knock out all the teeth of their slaves to prevent them from talking while they worked. Certainly, as you all know from American history, if a slave would “misbehave” a master would have every right to beat his slave in any way he saw fit.
And to all of this, the Torah says, no. Yes, the Torah does tolerate slavery. But to blind your slave?! To castrate your slave?! To even knock out a single tooth of your slave? Absolutely not.
To quote Rabbi Sacks once again: “If history tells us anything it is that God has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished but he wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.”
What Rabbi Sacks is suggesting is radical – that G-d, through the laws of our parsha, laws that sensitized the world to the humanity of slaves, laws that boldly declared this is not your property with whom you can do as you please, these laws would make an impression on those who learned them, who in time would learn its lessons and teach them to the world, and slavery would be abolished once and for all. It’s a radical idea, but I think he’s right. An analysis of the laws of slavery and a basic knowledge of the values of the Torah makes that all abundantly clear.
And if Rabbi Sacks is correct then Rabbi Einhorn was correct as well. That episode of Baltimore history, in which the Baltimore Jewish community chased Rabbi Einhorn out of this city because of his views on slavery is an embarrassment to our community’s rich Jewish history. I would imagine that if he were to get up today and give the same speech, that slavery is bad, we would all nod our heads in approval. Right? I would imagine that if he were to announce that all people, regardless of race, regardless of their social standing, are created in the image of G-d, we would stand up to applaud him. Right? I would imagine that if Rabbi Illowy would give a speech praising slavery, it would be him who we would chase out of town. Right?
But I’m not so sure.
Because you see, while slavery may not exist, the Torah is teaching us about an ever-relevant issue that still does. Slaves in the ancient and not so ancient world were those on the bottom rung of society. Not only does the Torah enhance the stature of the slave in the ancient world, it goes one big step further. Our parsha is the first parsha after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Ramban explains that the ten commandments are the summary of the entirety of the Torah, and it is in this parsha, mishpatim, the laws, in which the Torah goes into all of the details. If we were to be writing the laws of the Torah, we would probably start with Shabbos, maybe Kosher, maybe the need to believe in G-d. And yet, the Torah begins, and the very first set of laws of the Torah are about slavery, those on the bottom rung of society.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the laws of the Torah begin with slavery to teach us that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” (Mahatma Gandhi) It Is not enough to treat them well, G-d, by placing slavery as the very first set of laws, is informing us that how we interact with the underclass is how we are defined. Though slavery may no longer exist here in the US, that idea is ever-present.
How do we treat the custodian?
How do we treat the cashier?
How, after waiting on hold for 45 minutes, do we treat a customer service agent?
How do we treat children?
We had this amazing event this past Monday with a number of incredibly influential people. The event was well-attended, the presenters did a fabulous job, and people have been talking about the event and Ner Tamid all week. But you know what really stood out for me?
We had a reception before the event with shul leadership, a number of donors to the shul, and some leaders in the community. During this event, two of our panelists sat down to talk to my 13-year-old daughter and her two friends. In a room filled with all these “important” people, they had a real and extended conversation with three 13-year-olds. A person’s greatness is judged not by how many followers they have on social media, but by how he or she treats the weakest members of society.
There’s a lot of discussion in America about rectifying the evils of slavery. Contrary to the myths spread by antisemites, Jews did not play a significant role in the slave trade. But we, our community, the Jews who came before us here in Baltimore, applauded a rabbi who besmirched our Torah by elevating slavery and chased a rabbi out of town for daring to stand up against it. That is something we could rectify. Not necessarily with affirmative action or reparations. But with a nod of acknowledgment, with patience, a kind gesture, a smile, a hello. Our community will not be judged by the size of its houses, nor by the amount of Torah that we learn. We will be judged by how we treat the weakest members of our society.