If indeed Judaism gave the world the idea and ideal of freedom - "I am the Lord thy God who took thee out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" - how can our Bible accept the institution of slavery, and even legislate proper and improper treatment of slaves? Why didn't our Torah abolish slavery absolutely?
If we compare the laws of the Hebrew slave as found in Mishpatim (Exodus 21:2-6) to the laws found in Behar (Leviticus 25:39-47), we may arrive at a meaningful answer.
At first blush, the two primary sources appear to be in conflict. Mishpatim tells that if one purchases a Hebrew slave, he may only be enslaved for six years, and must be completely freed at the start of the seventh (Exodus 21:2). Secondly, this passage permits the owner to provide the slave with a gentile wife during his enslavement, stipulating that the children of this union will remain the gentile slaves of the owner after the Hebrew slave is freed (Exodus 21:4). And third, if the Hebrew slave desires to remain in bondage longer than six years - "because he loves his master, his wife, his children" - he may be enslaved "forever" according to the literal meaning of the text, or until the Jubilee 50th year, according to our sages; however, he must first submit to having his ear pierced at the doorpost, so that the message of God's dominion found in the mezuza there (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one) is not lost on him.
A very different picture seems to emerge from Behar, the first half of this week's double portion. Here the Bible emphasizes that we are not dealing with slavery as understood in ancient times, when a person in dire circumstances would be forced into slavery. Rather, the Torah insists that a person never be reduced to servitude, but must rather "be like a hired residential worker with you, and he shall work with you until the Jubilee 50th year. Because these hired residential workers are [no less than you] My servants whom I have taken out of Egypt, they may not be sold as one sells a slave. You shall not rule over them harshly; you must fear your God" (Leviticus 39-43).
You are not to have slaves, our text is proclaiming; you are merely to have hired residential workers!
And on examining our text in Behar we find a number of interesting differences between this passage and the text in Exodus. First of all, in our portion there doesn't seem to be a time limit of six years; the length of employment would seem to depend on the contract between employer and employee. Second, this passage doesn't seem to mention anything about the employer providing a gentile servant as wife. And third, our text doesn't ordain piercing of the ear for a longer stay. It does tell us in no uncertain terms that our Bible doesn't compromise with slavery! It only provides for hired residential workers.
The Talmud - which transmits the Oral Law, some of which emanated from Sinai and some of which is interpreted by our religio-leadership in each generation - teaches that these biblical passages deal with different kinds of "servant" (B.T. Kidushin 14a): the first (in Mishpatim) is a thief who doesn't have the means to restore the property he stole. Such an individual is put "on sale" by the religious court, whose goal is to encourage a family to undertake the responsibility of rehabilitation. After all, the criminal is not a degenerate, his crime is not a "high-risk" or sexual offense, and it is hoped that a proper family environment as well as gainful employment (with severance pay at the end of the six-year period) will put him back on his feet. He is not completely free, since the court has ruled that he must be "sold," but one can argue that such a "familial half-way house" is far preferable to jail. The family must receive compensation in the form of the work performed by the servant as well as the children who will remain after he is freed, and the criminal himself must be taught how to live respectfully in a free society.
The second passage in Behar deals with a very different situation, wherein an individual can't find gainful employment and is therefore freely willing to sell the work of his hands. The Bible here emphasizes that there is absolutely no room for slavery in such a case; the person may only be seen as a hired residential laborer, who may choose the duration of his contract; he is not "owned" in any way by his employer. Hence he cannot be "given" a wife, and of course any children he may father are exclusively his own!
There may also be a second way of viewing these two passages. Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, dean of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, suggests in a far-reaching article that slavery as well as polygamy underwent serious revision within Jewish law. There were many concepts which our Torah felt could only be introduced in stages - ideas which even the Israelite world wasn't ready to accept at the time of the Sinai Revelation. The passage in Mishpatim comes at the very dawn of Jewish history, and still uses the term eved (slave or servant), although transforming its significance; it places a time limit on rehabilitating a "criminal" and impresses upon him the value of freedom by piercing the ear of one who wishes to remain beyond the legislated time. The second passage is taught after Israel has begun to come of age, has learned the laws of the Sabbatical year and Jubilee, and is therefore ready to hear that slavery is abolished and the use of hired residential workers - who must not be treated in a servile manner - has taken its place.
Similarly when it comes to a gentile slave. In the verses immediately following our passage under analysis (Lev. 25:43 ff), the Bible provides for such a status. After all, one is farsighted if he is one step beyond his generation, but a "crackpot" if he takes a second step. Moreover, a gentile's slave status is actually the first stage in conversion to Judaism, since he must be circumcised (if male), go to a mikve for ritual immersion, and accept all the commandments except those positive commands determined by time - and once he is freed he is fully Jewish. In the immortal words of Maimonides (at the end of the Laws of Gentile Slaves):
"It is [biblically] permitted to treat a gentile slave in a servile manner. But despite the fact that this is the Law, piety and ways of wisdom ordain that a person be compassionate and pursue righteousness... The [employer] must feed [the gentile slave] with all the food and drink [that he feeds himself]. He may not treat him with scorn or speak to him with excessive shouting or anger. He must speak to him calmly, and always listen to his complaints. 'Is it not true that the One who made me, made him, and prepared us all from one womb?'"
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.