Slavery and Torah

After visiting civil rights memorials in Alabama, I’ve been reading about the history of slavery. The facts are shocking. The arguments made and justification for slavery are appalling. Some of them come straight out of the Bible.

As I read Behar-Behukotai, the history of slavery in America was called to mind. Slavery was almost as old as the arrival of Europeans. The first slaves arrived in 1619. The arguments to support slavery were often made by the Christian clergy. One popular argument was based on Leviticus 25.

כִּֽי־לִ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ עֲבָדִ֔ים עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt—I, your God יהוה.

The modern-day Israelites of the new world were the European interlopers. Many of them were Puritans and Quakers who themselves were escaping religious persecution. Their subjugation of the Indians and the use of Africans as slaves posed a dilemma. How could they justify their degradation of other human beings?

Turning to scripture they argued that all people were God’s servants. Servitude was the natural state of all human beings. Accordingly, different degrees of enslavement were fashioned in their arguments. White Anglo-Saxon people lived a life of servitude to God alone, while people of color would be servants to their white masters.

The biblical arguments also included references to the children of Noah. After the flood, each of Shem, Ham, and Japheth became the progenitors of a race of people. Ham was thought to be black-skinned. As we read in Genesis 9, Noah became drunk and was naked. Ham saw his father and did not act. His brothers covered their father. Noah cursed Ham to be a “servant of servants.” If African Americans were descendants of Ham then their place in civilization was to be servants of servants.

Jews believe our Torah traditions that support a compassionate and lawful civilization.  And the Torah also supported slavery. Perhaps the lesson for us is that even the holiest of books is not always authoritative. No scripture, no gospel is without interpretation and proper application. No person should limit their understanding to the simplest read of any written work, not even the Torah.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame