Re-Thinking Servitude

by Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

Recently a young woman from our congregation asked me a question about her bat mitzvah Torah portion. She wanted to know why the Torah permitted Israelites to own slaves, when the Israelites themselves had just been released from slavery. She could not understand why the Israelites would want to do to others the wrong that had been done to them.

In responding to her insightful question, we should first observe that the Israelites were not slaves in the way that we understand slavery. Over a decade ago, Rabbi David Wolpe created a stir when he said publicly during Passover that the Torah’s story about the Exodus from Egypt has no historical evidence to support it. But Rabbi Wolpe was only repeating something that archeologists had said for well over two decades earlier.

Does this mean that the Israelites were never oppressed by Egypt? Not at all.

At the height of the Egyptian empire, from about the 16th to the late 12th century BCE, Egypt occupied Canaan. Local Canaanites (including Israelites) were rounded up and forced to work on land held by the Pharaoh. From the Amarna letters, correspondence between Pharaoh’s court and the outlying provinces dating from the 14th century BCE, it is clear that the Egyptians forced the Israelites into state labor.

Our ancestors had to work for Pharaoh at the expense of their own fields and flocks, but they were not household slaves – commodities to be bought and sold. The economy of ancient Israel may have depended on the use of household slaves, so our ancestors “reformed” the institution of slavery, but didn’t abolish it.

Also, I think the Israelites may not have viewed “freedom” in the same way that we do. We modern Americans define “freedom” as “being able to do whatever we want.” We don’t want to be forced or obligated to do things.

That wasn’t the perspective in ancient Israel. The Torah teaches that the Israelites were freed from servitude to Egypt in order to be God’s servants. The Torah limits the use of Israelites as slaves because they are God’s slaves, “whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude” (Lev. 25: 42).

Our ancestors didn’t view their freedom as the ability to do whatever they wanted. Believing that they were meant to be God’s servants rather than Pharaoh’s, the writers of the Torah taught that we left bondage to Egypt in order to assume the obligations of the covenant at Sinai.

So what meaning does this teaching have for us today?

Perhaps it is time to add a new dimension to our definition of “freedom.” Imagine how empty our lives would feel if we were always free to “do whatever we wanted.” Imagine if we didn’t feel any obligation to others: to our families, our friends, our work, or our community. Imagine how empty our hearts would be if we thought only about ourselves and our own needs. We would have no sense of a larger purpose in life.

Our obligations to others are what give our lives shape and meaning. We are meant to be in the service of something larger than ourselves. So in this sense, it is no shame to be “in servitude,” as long as we are not serving a Pharaoh.

The true value of our freedom is that we can make the choices about whom, or what, we will serve. May we ever choose wisely!

Rabbi Jennifer Jaech is the rabbi at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester and co-chair of Reform Jewish Voice of New York State. 

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4 Responses to “Re-Thinking Servitude”

  1. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    This piece is insightful, but I fear that we are trying too hard to avoid being able to say:

    “Yes. Our ancestors, though venerable, were people of their time who said, did, and believed horrendous things. They owned slaves, and did not see everyone as being created b’tzelem Elohim. By modern standards, they were horrible people, but in their cultural and historical context, they were quite revolutionary.”

    We do not have to make excuses for ancient Israelites–a robust Jewish faith an identity can stand up not only to the lack of historicity in much of the Biblical narrative, but to the reality that much of what IS true is quite unsavory. The value of the kernels of timeless wisdom and truth in the Torah far outweighs the disquieting primitivity and barbarism that surrounds them. We are literal and spiritual heirs of the WHOLE tradition, but we only live up to its demands when we permit ourselves to make it grow as a living, changing organism–even if that means repudiating some of it.

    • avatar
      Franklin Speiser Reply May 21, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      An amazing document called the Ipuwer Papyrus is housed in the Dutch Museum, Antiquities section. It has been authenticated to the 13th century BCE. Written by an Egyptian it speaks about events in Egypt that sound amazingly similar to the plagues in the Haggadah. A fascinating read that may, in fact, be the historic certification that so many seem to be searching for.

  2. avatar

    I see no literary evidence that your ancestors did horrendous things, Mr. Friedman, other than telling stories about a god who told them, in certain circumstances, to do things that might seem horrendous in today’s world but that were probably, if actually practiced, milder than what the neighbors were doing.

    Nor do we today repudiate stories about behaviors that were less than horrendous but clearly unsavory — we constantly recall, as just two examples, the binding of Isaac and the deception of Isaac.

    Rabbi Jaech asks the right question, what meaning does this teaching have for us today? — the standard Fourth Question in the classic way of reading sacred text: simple meaning of the words, context, historical interpretation, contemporary significance. In terms of her bat mitzvah’s question, it’s well to remember today that the word translated as slave can also be translated as servant, a reminder that one should be cognizant of the treatment of employees; and also that one should guard against enslaving one’s self to bad habits and bad practices.

    One such bad habit is that of apologizing for that which requires no apology.

    • avatar

      When did I say that we should repudiate the stories? Of course not–only the behaviors themselves.

      It is absolutely essential that even as we squeeze the difficult stories for positive, helpful wisdom that’s applicable today, we recognize that our history is sometimes troubling–almost as soon as we were (supposedly) released from bondage, there was discussion of how to treat our own slaves, taking for granted that we would have them. That is absolutely nauseating, no matter how you try to spin it.

      That said, there is a legitimate conversation to be had regarding whether [עבד] means “slave” or “servant” in the context of Israelite society post-Exodus. Even if they were “slaves”, I suppose that it says something about the Jewish moral compass if even during a time when slavery was acceptable, we had regulations for how to treat them fairy, and they even had certain rights. Indeed, there is some evidence that slave-owning Jews in early America often treated them better than other slave-owners. It’s still very difficult and sickening to think or talk about, but one can certainly look at the history and marvel at how we are often ahead of our time.

      As the great Rabbi Louis Mann said, “It is not enough to stand where the sages and teachers of out past stood, exalted as was their position. Rather, we must stand where they would have stood were they alive today.” I’d like to think that if Abraham or Moses were alive today, they would sympathize with the way we do things today–perhaps they would even be Reform!

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