I attended the rabbinical school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Whenever we walked around the city, we were impressed by the city’s embrace of its own history. Many Americans and tourists from all over would make this pilgrimage to the first capital of the United States. Of course, the longest queues wound through Independence National Historical Park, as people from all over the world would line up to see the Liberty Bell, one of the most iconic symbols of American identity and the premise of freedom on which the nation was founded.
Famously emblazoned across the Liberty Bell are the words, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10), which comes from our double parashah this week. Following the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, formally ending slavery in the United States, these words and this bell have come to serve as a message of hope for all the oppressed throughout the world.
Yet the parashah that contains these words also reflects a darker message — one that actually endorses slavery. In this same chapter of Leviticus we read that non-Israelite residents of the land may be acquired as permanent slaves, and may be kept “as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time” (Leviticus 25:46).
What are we to make of this contradiction in our parashah? Why does the Torah view slavery as anathema for Israelites but acceptable for their neighbors? We might expect to find a rationale based on the assertion of some notion of superiority. But no of such concept is found in Leviticus.
Rather, our portion offers a more theological explanation: Israelites may not become permanent slaves to other people because they are already slaves to another master—to the God who redeemed them from Egypt. As expressed here in Leviticus, the story of the exodus from Egypt is not about the rejection of slavery as a moral outrage, but rather about God’s exclusive ownership of the people of Israel. The chapter emphasizes this point in its final verse: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God” (Leviticus 25:54).
Throughout history, Jews have always been active in liberating kidnapped and enslaved Jews. The concept of Pidyon Sh‘vuyim – the redemption of captives – stresses our responsibility to bring about the release of a fellow Jew who is held in slavery, kidnapped, taken as a prisoner of war or imprisoned unjustly by authorities. We see this value today exemplified by Israel’s willingness to participate in grossly uneven prisoner swaps in order to bring home a captive Israeli soldier.
It is sad to note however that, throughout history, Jews have at times participated in or at least tolerated the enslavement of non-Jews. During certain historical periods, Jews have owned slaves. If the slaves were released, it was not in compliance with Torah law, but in compliance with local civil law.
The State of Israel today is the Jewish State, but it is not a religious state. In its 1948 Declaration of independence and, more explicitly, in its 1992 Basic Law of Human Liberty and Dignity, it makes the following statement: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free.” This is a powerful moral and legal statement of which we Jews should be particularly proud — but it does not come from the Torah.
Despite these bold statements, slavery has not disappeared — not in 1863, not in 1948, not in 1992, nor even today. Various forms of slavery continue to be practiced, as documented by Benjamin Skinner in his recent book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern Slavery. Skinner follows the modern slave trade on five continents, from sex trafficking to the sale of children into forced labor to the suburban exploitation of domestic workers. Skinner claims that there are more people living in slavery today than at any other time of history.
This moral outrage exists nearly everywhere, including Israel. Migrant workers live in a perilous legal state and are vulnerable to predatory behaviors by employers who withhold pay and freedom of movement. Recently, in Israel the abuses in the foreign worker visa program have reached the front pages, but what we don’t hear much about are the serious continued abuses of human trafficking victims and undocumented workers. The Israeli Supreme Court recently issued a ruling to protect such workers but much more needs to be done.
Israel’s Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty gives the Jewish people an opportunity to exercise a collective moral action, including correcting what might be seen as a moral lapse in our Torah. No prior Jewish source has said as clearly what this law says: that slavery is forbidden across-the-board for all people. Of this we should be proud. But more is demanded of us. Such sentiment must be translated into a reality in which the enslavement and subjugation of any human being becomes impossible. After all, as the Torah suggests, it is not only the Jewish people who are “owned” by God. As the book of Psalms says, “The earth is God’s and all that it holds, the world and all its inhabitants” (24:1). Any person, of any faith, who participates in the subjugation of another human being, must be reminded that this is an outrage not only to humanity but also to God. For it is up to each and everyone us to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land”