Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jubilee & the Un-Jubilant, Property & Slavery, Jews and Non-Jews

Canaanite slave watches Hebrew slave go to freedom
and land while he remains behind
As the buzz of the royal wedding fades, some have contrasted the injustice of inherited privilege with the principle of equality of opportunity and reward based on merit. Yet, disadvantaged is often entrenched among the “have not”s and even passed from generation to generation. This week I examine some mechanisms for disrupting disadvantage as these apply to Jews and Non-Jews.

Some property owners can fall on hard times and need to sell up, which would normally result in the rich getting rich and the poor getting poorer. This was not the case in Ancient Israel, where every 50th year was the Jubilee year and at that time any land that was sold would revert to the original owners and each man would return to his “holdings”[1].  The Jubilee year reminds us that the land belongs to God, we can never sell the land for ever “because mine is the land” כי לי הארץ we are merely “residents and settlers” with God[2].

This was a massive redistribution of wealth. The closest to this that we might experience is deciding to start over at the end of a bad monopoly game. This would level the playing field for many people.

It must be assumed that this would benefit only Jewish residents of the land, amongst whom the land of Canaan was divided after it was conquered. While this inequality bothers me, the Jubilee year has not been in practice for some 2000 years. The return of the Jubilee practice will resume with the Messianic era, but then it will be a time when “he that has no money; come “buy”, and eat; come buy wine and milk without money and without price[3]”. In that kind of environment, I doubt property will matter.   

Freedom for all
Another aspect of the Jubilee year was freedom for slaves. The Torah states “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants[4]. It is significant that it does not proclaim liberty for slaves, but to all its inhabitants. There are technical reasons given for this[5] , including an indication that it also applies to women slaves[6], but the most interesting interpretation is that “in any country where freedom is incomplete even if only a few are slaves, all the people are slaves. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master”[7]

Non-Jewish Slaves
The argument that freedom for all is needed for there to be freedom for anyone would suggest that non-Jewish slaves were included in this law. However the Torah states that “slaves and maid-servants that you will have from the nations around you and from residents among you…forever will you work with them[8]”.

Slavery merely tolerated by the Torah
It has been argued by a range of scholars that while Torah permits slavery, it does so as a concession to ancient civilisations that would find it to hard to get rid of all their slaves, with their economies and agriculture so dependent on slave labour and so legislates it to minimise the harm, with a view to gradually eliminating it completely[9].
There is a suggestion that slavery was only tolerated by the Torah rather than endorsed by it[10].

The restrictions on slavery, and would therefore begin a process of moving away from slavery are many. Some of these apply to a Jewish slave, such as a master being forbidden to giving him menial tasks such as cleaning the barn. Such a task would be permissible to demand from a Jewish employee because it is not so difficult for a free person because if he wants to do it, he does and if he does not want to he (free to quit and does) not do it[11].

Other restrictions apply to both Jewish and Non-Jewish slaves, such as the law that a slave who is beaten so severely that he looses a tooth or other limb goes free[12]. Perhaps the strongest signal against slavery, is the prohibition of returning an escaped slave to his master. “do not give over a slave to his master who will be saved to you from his master. He should dwell with you, in the place that he will choose in one of your gates, do not mistreat him[13]. This is interpreted as applying to a non-Jewish slave who escaped his Jewish master who lives outside the holy land, if the slave reaches the holy land[14]

Guidance against freeing slaves
This view of slavery is challenged by the law that the verse mentioned above “slaves and maid-servants that you will have from the nations around you and from residents among you…forever will you work with them” is not merely permission to continue to own a non-Jewish slave which is the view put forward by Rabbi Yishmael[15] but a requirement as is the view of Rabbi Akiva[16]. The consensus of the Halacha follows the view of Rabbi Akiva[17]. The only exception is when there is an opportunity for a Mitzvah such as the slave being freed to make up a Minyan for prayer then it is acceptable to free him. It is difficult to reconcile this with a view of slavery as merely tolerated by the Torah.

There are 2 approaches to this idea of the perpetual slave. One approach could be to put greater weight on the idea that these slaves would be “Cananite slave” to restrict this to slaves to the children of Ham, but that slaves descended from Shem (regardless of their faith, perhaps) would be automatically freed[18].  This raises other questions about the justice of people being treated differently based on their ancestor and also touches on issues dealt with partially about the whole notion of divine sanction of slavery through the course of Ham[19].  A second approach is an attempt to broaden the loophole which allows freeing slaves “for the purpose of a Mitzvah” to include “reasons of general morality[20]”.

I have not reconciled our modern attitudes to slavery and all of Torah’s statements about this. The image of the Jewish slave going on to freedom and back to his home while the Canaanite slave remains behind disturbs me. Yet, it has no practical application today, where slaves are not kept. I think the balance of guidance in the Torah is still toward treating all people justly, doing that which is proper and good in the eyes of God[21].

[1] Leviticus 25:13
[2] Leviticus 25:23
[3]  Isaiah 55:1
[4] Leviticus 25:10
[5] The law only applies when all “its inhabitants” are present on the land (Sifra & Talmud Arachin 32), Or it only applies to those who inhabit the holy land but not to other nations who are not obligated to free slaves in the jubilee year (Bchor Shor).
[6] Chizkuni, Mosad Harav Kook Edition p.414
[7] Pnei Yehoshua, Joshua son of Joseph Falk, 1593-1648, he adds, “This is another meaning in the words of our sages, “he who acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires a master for himself”
[8] Leviticus 25:44-46
[9] Rabinovitch, N. E, (2003), “The Way of Torah,” The Edah Journal 3,1, (2003) pp. 8-12. cited in Cooper, C, (2011) Eved Kena’ani, the other Jewish Slave,, also Freeman, T,,
 I find it fascinating to see the range of people to take position along these lines. Perhaps, surprisingly these include, Tzvi Freeman of who states
 “Torah is a radical element in our world. …On the one hand, the Torah speaks from a future that has yet to occur, inspiring us with its vision, pulling us toward that time. On the other hand, the Torah must deal with the world as it is, not artificially imposing upon it a foreign mold, but bringing it on its own from the place it stands by nature and circumstance to the place it truly belongs. Take an agrarian society surrounded by hostile nations. Go in there and forcefully abolish slavery. The result? …eventually, a return to slavery until the underlying conditions change.  Not a good idea. Better idea: Place humane restrictions upon the institution of indentured servitude. Yes, it's still ugly, but in the meantime, you'll teach people compassion and kindness. Eventually, things change and slavery becomes an anachronism for such a society…So the "conservative-radical" approach of Torah is this: Work with the status quo to get beyond it. Torah is more about process than about content.”
[10] Berkovits, Rabbi Eliezer Jewish Women in Time and Torah cited in Hecht, Rabbi B, (1994)
[11] Bchor Shor, Behar, Mosad Harav Kook edition p. 232, It could be argued that this freedom of employees was eroded with the industrial age and the labour market favouring employers, making employees desperate. Perhaps trade unions have restored the balance somewhat. The full extent of this argument is beyond my area of knowledge.
[12] Exodus 21:26
[13] Deuteronomy 23:16-17, 
[14] Rashi, 2nd interpretation on the following verse
[15] This same view is the one favored initially by Ibn Ezra who states about the verse “you shall work them forever”, “it is allowed, but when I found that the sages, may their memory be for a blessing, stated that it is a commandment, we accepted it (their view).
[16] Talmud, Gittin 38b,
[17] as stated in the in the Rif, Tur Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 267, Mimonedes Laws of Slaves 9:6, Rosh Gittin Chapter
[18] Midrash Yelamdenu brought in Likutim Part 6, 2, p32, Beresheet Zuta 44, also related to Zohar part 3, 111 Raya Mehemna, in Torah Shlaima vol 34 p111
[19], needs substantial further work[20] R. Samson Raphael Hirsh, on Leviticus 25:46
[21] Deuteronomy 6:18

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