Throughout history, Jews have contemplated the practical and ethical implications of the biblical injunction of slavery. As recently as the 19th century, the discussion of biblical slavery was of practical interest. During the American Civil War, a public and heated dialogue about the permissibility of the institution of slavery took place between rabbis of the time, each using Torah sources to defend his respective position. In today’s Western world, however, slavery has mostly been eradicated and is widely viewed as morally unacceptable in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Contemporary studies of biblical slavery and the halakhot regarding an eved Kena’ani (Canaanite slave) often focus on the ethical implications of the Torah’s sanction of slavery. With the assumption that slavery constitutes a violation of basic human rights and seems to negate the Torah’s view that every human being is created be-tselem E-lohim (in the image of God), scholars often ask why the Torah allowed slavery altogether.
In response to this challenge, many Jewish thinkers explain the Torah’s permissive approach towards slavery not as an expression of an ideal, but as a concession to the historical reality of the time in which the Torah was given. Since slavery was a universally accepted practice in the ancient world and indeed was depended upon by existing economic frameworks, the Torah could not have expected the Jews to refrain from engaging in this practice. Thus, the Torah instead sought to limit its injustices by creating a slavery system that was as ethical as possible, with the ultimate goal of eliminating it entirely. Another possible way to view this concession is that, given the pervasiveness of slavery in ancient cultures, had the Torah forbidden slavery in a Jewish society, Am Yisrael would have had great difficulty impacting the models of slavery in surrounding societies. Requiring a more upright system of slavery, one in which non-Jewish slaves could also partake, the Torah gave the Jewish nation recourse to improve the conditions of those slaves and to provide an example to other nations for ethical treatment, serving as an or la-goyim, a light unto nations. In fact, explains R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Torah only permitted the purchase of an eved Kena’ani if that individual was already a slave under existing international law.
The prime example of a Torah law as a concession to human reality is found in Hazal’s comments on the topic of eshet yefat to’ar, a non-Jewish female captive whom the Torah allows a Jewish soldier to take as a wife. In light of this law, the Gemara in Kiddushin 21b states that, “lo dibberah Torah ela ke-neged yetser ha-ra,” “the Torah [in this case] speaks specifically against the evil inclination.” Rashi there explains that since the soldier’s desire would be insurmountable, the Torah permits the soldier to behave in a dubious manner. Rambam famously employs a similar concept in explaining the biblical institution of korbanot (sacrifices). He argues that, although animal sacrifice is not the ideal way to serve God, the Torah constructed a system of korbanot because, historically, that was the accepted mode of worship. As such, it would have been impossible for the Torah to effectively prevent Am Yisrael from serving God in that manner. From these examples it emerges that viewing certain legal constructs in the Torah as acknowledgments of difficult realities rather than paradigms for ethical behavior exists within Torah tradition. According to this approach, Halakhah promotes certain ethical ideals, but cannot always require that these ideals be fully implemented immediately after the Torah was given. Instead, it may take time and much training in Torah in order for Am Yisrael to achieve the Torah’s true, ethical goal. However, it must be stated that these ethical ideals are internal to Torah and the halakhic system, and are not adopted from the external world and applied to Torah.
Although the ethical dilemma posed by the overall existence of biblical slavery is often addressed, a notable issue rarely dealt with on a philosophical level is the religious status of the eved Kena’ani. While the exact nature of this status is not clear, the eved Kena’ani is largely viewed as being in between a ger toshav (resident alien) and full Jew. He is obligated to undergo a conversion process, including milah (circumcision) and tevilah (ritual immersion), and must keep all mitsvot except for those that are time-bound.,, If emancipated, the eved Kena’ani becomes a full member of the Jewish people. Why did the Torah feel it necessary to impose halakhic obligations upon the non-Jewish slave? Why is there no possibility of owning an eved Kena’ani who abides by the sheva mitsvot benei Noah (seven Noahide laws) like a ger toshav, but without any additional Jewish commandments? In defense of the Torah’s permissive approach towards slavery, it is often noted that the Torah considers the eved Kena’ani to be a part of the Jewish community; proof that Halakhah does not treat the slave solely as property, but recognizes him as a human being as well. But why does Halakhah prohibit an eved Kena’ani from maintaining a non-Jewish Noahide identity and achieving a respected and acceptable place in a Jewish society without the additional Jewish obligations?
One possible explanation for this phenomenon lies in practical, political reasoning rather than philosophical explanation. Professor David M. Cobin, a professor at Hamline University School of Law and an expert on slavery in Jewish law, argues that Hazal were fearful that the non-Jewish slave, even one ostensibly keeping his Noahide obligations, would remain too connected to his gentile national origins. Such a slave might betray the Jewish community by releasing potentially harmful information he obtained while working for his Jewish masters to the empires in power. This worry was expressed by R. Hai Gaon, who stated in a teshuvah (responsum) that although it might be permissible to keep an unconverted slave, one should not do so if there is a “fear that unconverted slaves will reveal Jewish secrets to those who seek after Jewish souls and blood and bring danger or war upon Jews.” Thus, by demanding that the eved Kena’ani take on a stronger Jewish identity, only those slaves who are willing to abandon their non-Jewish identities are allowed to serve in and become a part of the Jewish world.
Additionally, Hazal may not just have been fearful of possible injurious reports reaching the non-Jewish powers but may also have been concerned about the possible negative impact of having large foreign populations flooding Jewish society. Introducing a significant number of slaves coming from various cultural backgrounds into a new societal context could greatly destabilize a community or lead to a slave rebellion. The halakhic requirement of conversion was therefore intended to maintain stability in the Jewish community by only allowing those foreigners who were willing to blend into Jewish culture to become an eved Kena’ani.
Finally, I would like to tentatively suggest that just as the entire enterprise of slavery in the Torah can be seen as a concession that should ideally be eliminated, the particular laws of an eved Kena’ani can be viewed through this lens as well. Since the Torah allowed slavery but wished to minimize its practice while making it as ethical as possible, the Torah wanted to ensure that Jewish society would not develop into a rigid caste system with an entrenched slave class at the bottom of the social order. In order to ensure this, the Torah gave the eved Kena’ani the status of a quasi-Jew so that his Jewish master would be more likely to view him as one of his own. In the ancient world, “slaves were almost always of a different ethnic group, national origin, religion or political unit than their owners” because, psychologically, these differences, viewed as inferiorities, made it easier to enslave foreigners. By giving the eved Kena’ani a quasi-Jewish status and allowing him to become a full member of the Jewish community when emancipated, Halakhah tries to make sure that Jewish society will never turn into a slave-based class system.
A major challenge to this proposed explanation is the severe halakhic limitations on freeing an eved Kena’ani based on the pasuk “le-olam ba-hem ta’avodu,” “you shall thus have them serve you forever,” which teaches that a master cannot free his slave unless it is to allow him to participate in a mitsvah act, or a devar mitsvah., If the goal of the Torah was to minimize the practice of slavery, then certainly emancipating slaves should have been encouraged, or, at the very least, not forbidden!
In order to properly grapple with this challenge, it is imperative to understand the Torah’s view that one can only properly serve God as a result of God’s direct command, not as a result of the force of others. In order to fulfill one’s religious mission, one must act as is he is made be-tselem E-lokim, which, according to R. Yosef Dov Soleveitchik, means to have control over one’s environment. Consequently, in order to engage in meaningful avodat Hashem (worship of God), one must have the control and freedom to choose to do so. Since the eved Kena’ani only becomes a complete Jew once his master frees him, the slave’s Jewishness is completely controlled by his master, which is antithetical to the Torah’s view that Jewish worship requires autonomy. However, in a case of devar mitsvah, the freedom of the slave is the result of the will of God, not another human being, and thus the slave’s Jewishness is not imposed upon him by the will of another person; rather, it is the will of God, so to speak. Therefore, we find a tension in Halakhah between limiting slavery and ensuring that slaves do not become Jews through compulsion. In reality, however, manumission was often encouraged and halakhic authorities often “decided almost every doubt in favor of freedom.”
If my proposed explanation for the religious status of the eved Kena’ani is a tenable one, then this halakhah provides an inspiring example of the Torah’s attempt to form an ethically based society. Furthermore, it underscores the Torah’s understanding of human nature that drastic societal changes cannot be imposed in a short time. In its infinite wisdom, the Torah provides the framework to achieve the ultimate goal, allowing human beings to eventually reach the ethical understanding present in the Torah all along.
Chana Cooper is a senior at SCW majoring in Physics and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.