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Jewish Tradition and Slavery

As a freshman in college at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1967, I vividly remember driving north with a friend to San Francisco to participate in a Vietnam war protest and being directed by the hospitality network to the home of Aaron Greenberg. When we arrived, a handsome African-American in his mid-20s greeted us at the door. Politeness could not hide our surprise at finding an African-American named Aaron Greenberg. Recognizing this, Aaron replied rather matter of factly, "I am the fifth generation descendant of a Jewish slave-owner."

Halachic Clarification

The laws limiting the rights of a slave owner and expanding the rights of the slave (including the right to emancipation after seven years labor for Hebrew slaves, and automatic release for all slaves during a Jubilee year) are described in the parshat Mishpatim.

One would think that the life of a Jewish slave owner bent on maximizing the economic benefit of slave labor would be greatly impeded by such "humanitarian" restrictions. But in a gloss near the end of his commentary, Jacob Culi reminds us why this would not be the case even if the Jewish slave owner was concerned about halacha. For the laws regulating the relationship between the slave owner and the slave are talui b'aretz, dependent on the steady and complete habitation of Eretz Yisrael by a full complement of Jewish tribes. Lacking this sovereignty, this class of halachot are not binding.

Aggadic (Story) Enrichment

Yet, Judaism's ethical impulses are deep and embedded or at least arguably beyond halacha itself. The modern civil-rights movement with its strong Jewish involvement testifies to this ultimate Jewish concern.

In that context, one appreciates the story told on NPR several years ago, which reminds us that the Hebrew Bible can be read in many different ways. The documentary depicted the institution of the plantation church belonging to the land owners. The ministers of these churches were quite expert at locating parshiyot such as Mishpatim and others found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy relating to the Divine sanction for the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

Dignified services were held on Sunday mornings in plantation churches. Slaves dutifully attended. But their hearts and souls emerged in the afternoon when they went to a second church, the so-called field churches. There they would, as it were, roll back the Torah scroll and reread the stirring story of the Israelites' liberation from Egyptian slavery through the leadership of Moses and the intervention of God. At such churches, Negro spirituals about freedom were inspired and written.

Commitment and Continuity

In contemporary Christian thought, the Hebrew scriptures, in general, and in particular, these sections of the book of Exodus, serve as the cornerstone of liberation theology. Particularly prevalent throughout Latin America and the third world, Catholic priests continue to preach "truth to power" in a struggle for social justice rooted in the Hebrew Bible.

Reprinted by permission of the Cleveland Jewish News.

This dvar Torah is one of a series influenced by the Me'am Loez Sephardic Torah commentary. Read the introduction to the series.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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