The film “12 Years a Slave,” is currently nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. The film is the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and forced into slavery. The trailers alone (I haven’t yet seen the film) show the brutal nature of slavery as it was institutionalized in the American South. Northup’s captivity ends when he is able at last to prove his identity.
American slave owners, to varying degrees, relied on the Bible as justification for slavery. For example, in Genesis Chapter 16 Hagar runs away from her mistress Sarah (known at that point of the story as Sarai). An angel of God speaks to her and tells her to return to her mistress’ harsh treatment. This was interpreted by some to promote slavery and discourage slaves from running away. But Deuteronomy 23:16-17 prohibits the return of fugitive slaves: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases: you must not ill-treat him.” One commentator posits that this refers only to slaves from abroad, but the Talmud says that the rule also applied when the owner was an Israelite.
Slavery seems to be a topic addressed with some ambivalence in the Torah. On one hand, our ancestors’ formative experiencewas the redemption from slavery in Egypt. These events are commemorated, ritualized, and even re-enacted at the Passover seder. Our path to fulfillment as the Jewish people depends on our freedom.
And yet the Torah does not outlaw slavery. Instead it is meticulous about regulating it, presumably to make it unattractive to a potential slave owner. This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, in Exodus Chapter 21, presents most of the commandments the Torah has about slavery. The laws are somewhat disjointed, but they create a picture not really of slavery, but of the slave. He is a human being. He is to be given the right to leave after seven years. Had American slavery truly been biblically based, Simon Northop’s nightmare would have been five years shorter. Mishpatim and other parts of the Torah list other restrictions on slavery, doing its best to affirm that we ought to be servants only to God. The most sweeping commandment portraying slavery as a flawed institution is the jubilee year, which in Leviticus 25 proclaims release throughout the land every fifty years, and reunites families.
Slavery in this country is a thing of the past, legally at least. Recently we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, which announced a new birth of freedom for this country. But slavery has not been eradicated by any means. Some estimates indicate that there are more slaves worldwide today than at any point in history.
Here in the United States, we hear stories about men and women who are often trafficked into forced labor situations in homes or businesses. Others are forced into sexual slavery. It is difficult to help these victims because it is hard to find them; for obvious reasons their captors keep them from view. And they seek help only at great risk to themselves and sometimes to their families. Recently there has been a concerted effort to raise awareness of human trafficking. Jewish organizations such as T’ruah, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ have put a priority on addressing this crisis, as it tends to become more acute around major sporting events such as the Super Bowl. The work that they and others have done is crucial, and it can be supported by individuals of all different political and religious ideologies. (See page 7 for more information about local efforts to fight human trafficking.)
No one ought to be a slave. The Torah limited slavery as best it could, and we are blessed to live in a country that outlaws forced servitude. The challenge now is to embrace the lessons of the Exodus, understand the implications of Parashat Mishpatim, and ensure that freedom extends to everyone.