I was born in December 1946. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which abolished slavery was ratified in December 1865, only 81 years earlier. My great-grandmother, who died when I was a teenager, may not have been born in slavery, but her mother most likely was. I don't know for certain because slavery wasn't something we talked about in my family when I was young. Our ancestors were victims, but we, the children of the victims, were ashamed, as if it was their fault they were slaves... as if it was our fault. In any case, there are possibly only two “greats” and four generations between me and slavery. 81 years. Not very much time at all.
And these verses are in our Torah, in my least favorite book:
Leviticus 44 to 46: “Such male and female slaves as you may have — it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves.”
Although there are restrictions on keeping other Jews as slaves, it is OK to enslave non-Jews “as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time.”
With very little research it is possible to find verses in all five books of Moses that accept the institution of slavery. Obviously this is something that affects me personally. And it is a part of the Torah that has always bothered me a greatly.
When I was taking basic Judaism classes before I converted, and I was asked a question to which I did not know the answer, nine times out of ten “Because we were slaves in Egypt” would turn out to be correct. The liberation of Israel from Egypt is part of the central narrative of the whole history of the Jewish people.
So if Torah is about liberty and human dignity, why the acceptance of what I've always thought of as the Great Evil: slavery? Why didn't the Torah just outright ban slavery?
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, says it is because “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. And 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.”
He gives this example:
“Take an agrarian society surrounded by hostile nations. Go in there and forcefully abolish slavery. The result? War, bloodshed, hatred, prejudice, poverty and eventually, a return to slavery until the underlying conditions change... Not a good idea.
Better idea: Place humane restrictions upon the institution... 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.”
Others I read also give the same general answer: G-d and the sages knew slavery was wrong, but in that time, in that culture, in that place, they could only mitigate it to some extent, they could not abolish it.
From my perspective: that of the great, great granddaughter of slaves, that seems more a rationalization than an argument. But let us assume it is true: Torah times were a long
time ago, it was a very different culture, it was a very different place.
There is still that scant four generations, that mere eighty one years between my birth and slavery in the United States. That is not a long time ago, it is not a very different culture, it is not a very different place. One has only to read the news these days, if you can stand to do it. The battle of the hashtags (#blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter #policelivesmatter) and the heated rhetoric of the Republicans and Democrats says clearly (at least to me) that there is a legacy of distrust and dislike that shows the U.S. is not so different 151 years after the abolition of slavery.
Of course, some things have changed.
I remember as a child, standing on my front porch, watching the trucks roll by filled with young National Guard troops, going into Watts (near Los Angeles, California) to put down the riots after Martin Luther King Jr's death.
And now, within my lifetime, there is an African-American man in the White House, whose greatest competition for the job, from within his own party at least, was a woman. (Who just shattered a major glass ceiling of another kind, winning the Democratic nomination for President a few nights ago.)
Whatever you may think about the current President, having him win the nomination, and the election, showed that some major changes have happened in this country recently.
So why do these verses about slavery bother me so much – here and now?
Because, according to the State Department, there are as many as 27 million modern day slaves worldwide, with as many as 50,000 slaves trafficked into the US from foreign countries, along with 244,000 kidnapped and exploited US citizens. That’s here and now.
In addition, the WARChild International Network reports that 250,000 children are actively deployed each year, fighting in almost 75% of armed conflicts worldwide. Here and now.
27 million slaves worldwide. I don't even know how to understand that number. 250,000 child soldiers each year. I don't know how to understand that number either.
I'll be honest with you. These numbers stun me. In this time, in this modern culture, in this place. Here and now.
I wish I knew what to do to make slavery something that only happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way.
But it isn't. It just isn't.
Like Anne Frank I have to believe that “In spite of everything ...people are really good at heart... [And even though] I can feel the sufferings of millions ... if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end...”
Change is possible in human nature, but it can take so much time. G-d may have infinite patience. But I don't. I think G-d, and our sages, wanted slavery abolished, and that they want that still. But it must be done by us, by free human beings who have come to see, of their own accord, the evil that slavery is and the evil it does.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, said: “The G-d 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.
“Egypt was the Jewish people’s school of the soul; ...its ongoing seminar in the art and craft of freedom. It taught [us] what it felt like to be on the wrong side of power. Jews [are] the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery, so that [we] never take freedom for granted. [Because] those who do so, eventually lose it.” Or as the song by the great blues singer Solomon Burke puts it: “None of us are free, as long as one of us is chained, no one of us is free.”
I feel that this is on us. Slavery still exists. And we are the people charged to remember it, and learn from it, and hopefully, end it... soon, in our own time.
Over the past few years, the number of countries, which includes the US, that have taken steps to implement the UN Protocol against Trafficking in Persons has doubled.
And this is a good thing at that level. But what can we, as individuals, do?
We can educate ourselves about what is going on. An internet search using the words “human trafficking” or “child soldiers” will bring up page after page of unbelievable statistics as well as information about the red flags that may indicate human trafficing, and things we can do to help stop it. As a first stop, go to CNN’s The Freedom Project
Lastly, Anne Frank, in her famous diary, also said: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
So let us not wait a single moment longer to begin working to truly abolish slavery so that at some point someone reading about slavery in Leviticus or any part of Torah, will simply be able to shake their heads in wonder at what would by then have truly become an institution of another time, another place, another culture.