Why Permit Slavery

Exegetical Approaches

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Beneficial to the Slave

The institution of slavery improves the lot of the slave so that he benefits rather than suffers from his enslavement.  The position subdivides regarding whether the benefit received is physical or spiritual in nature:

Physical Benefit

Enslavement to an Israelite gives the slave improved physical conditions and treatment.

"מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ עֶבֶד וְאָמָה": limiting the law – R. Hirsch and R. Uziel limit the law regarding buying Canaanites slaves, suggesting that it is forbidden to turn a free person into a Canaanite slave against his will.  One is permitted to buy only someone who already has slave status, for the whole purpose is to save them from the harsh treatment being born under the foreign master.  This might be learned from the fact that the verse does not simply say  "כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד כנעני" but rather "מֵאֵת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיכֶם מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ עֶבֶד", emphasizing that one is buying the slave from others.
"גַם מִבְּנֵי הַתּוֹשָׁבִים הַגָּרִים עִמָּכֶם מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ" – This verse is somewhat difficult for this approach as it implies that one is allowed to buy and enslave local residents (even though they are not currently enslaved under harsh conditions).  This is likely what leads R. Hirsch to explain that the verse means that such a resident can sell himself of his own volition, not that one can forcefully buy him.1
Freedom for knocking out  a limb – In ancient times, it was common for slaves to be punished or kept in line via the wounding or amputating of limbs.2 As such, the Torah's law that any master who knocks out a slave's limb must free his slave was revolutionary, and can attest to the difference in treatment a slave could hope to receive under Israelite law.3
Penalty for killing: "נָקֹם יִנָּקֵם" – R. Hirsch understands this to mean that if a slave owner whips his slave to death he is held accountable for murder.4  Since the slave has no blood-redeemers, vengeance for the act falls on the community at large. This law, thus, further demonstrates how, under Israelite law, slaves were not  viewed as mere property, but as humans whose lives were worth avenging.  This was not always the case in other societies.5
Escaped slaves: "לֹא תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדֹנָיו" – This position might suggest that the verse is referring to a Gentile slave who escaped the harsh treatment of foreign masters. If so, this law, too, demonstrates how the Torah desires to protect people from such abuse.6
"וּבְאַחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל... לֹא תִרְדֶּה בוֹ בְּפָרֶךְ" – This verse is difficult for this position as it implies that it is only forbidden to overwork and abuse Israelite slaves, but that it would not be a problem to treat Canaanite slaves in such a manner.  If the whole point of buying Gentile slaves is to improve their lot, one would have expected that they, too, would be included in this prohibition.7 R. Hirsch responds that the verse refers not to abusing one's slaves,8 but only to teaching them obedience. He claims that one would be allowed to do the same even to a free Israelite who was under your authority and needed to be educated.9
"לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ" – If buying Canaanite slaves is permitted in order to improve their lot, why does the Torah allow them to be enslaved eternally?10 If their bondage was limited, like that of an Israelite, would not their circumstances be that much better? R. Hirsch suggests that once someone is branded as a slave, he is always treated as one, even if he is supposedly granted equal rights.11 As such, a slave's only salvation is to become a permanent part of an Israelite household who will ensure that he is not maltreated.12 R. Hirsch, thus, asserts that the words "לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ" constitute not merely permission, but an obligation to eternally enslave the Canaanite,13 as this is the only way to really protect such slaves.14
Hebrew slave – R. Hirsch emphasizes that the Oral Law teaches that there are only two instances in which a person can be sold as an Israelite slave: if he stole and does not have another way to repay the stolen goods,15 or if he is impoverished and voluntarily sells himself so as to survive.16 As such, these laws, too, were instituted to aid the slave (or ensure that justice is served), and do not condone otherwise taking away someone's liberty..

Spiritual Benefit

Enslavement of a Gentile gives him opportunities for moral and religious growth.

"מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ" – According to Netziv, buying slaves from neighboring lands is not merely permitted, but there is a positive Biblical commandment to do so, for in so doing one will remove them from idolatry.17
"גַם מִבְּנֵי הַתּוֹשָׁבִים" – Netziv suggests that this verse speaks specifically of  "בְּנֵי הַתּוֹשָׁבִים", who are still idolatrous, rather than the "גר תושב" himself who has already accepted monotheism.  There is only an obligation to buy slaves whose religious outlook will change as a result of the sale, for only in such a case is there a benefit to the slave.18
Eternal bondage – Since the purpose of enslavement is to bring the slave closer to God and moral perfection, it is illogical that he should be freed to perhaps return to his old ways., and so one is prohibited from freeing him.19
"וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ"R. HirschBereshit 9:25Bereshit 9:27About R. Samson Raphael Hirsch asserts that in Noach's curse to Cham, one can already see that the goal of servitude is the spiritual uplifting of the enslaved. He suggests that Noach's words "וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ" are, in essence, a prayer that Canaan be enslaved to Shem so that he can thereby get close to God and correct his abased nature.
"עבודת פרך" – Netziv understands the term to refer to working without hope of freedom, rather than oppression.  The Torah is not implying that one  is allowed to oppress one's Canaanite slave; rather, it is simply contrasting the Canaanite slave, who was to be enslaved forever,20 with the Israelite slave who has hope of emancipation.
Hebrew slaves

Concession to Reality

The institution of slavery is undesirable, and is permitted only as a concession to historical  circumstances or human nature.

Does Torah represent an ideal? All these sources maintain that not all of the laws of Torah represent an eternal ideal or a perfect morality, and that some are instituted to address the unfortunate realities of human nature and/or economic and societal circumstances.  As such, in certain areas, the Torah presents not the highest moral standard but a required minimum.
The need for slavery – These sources differ in their understanding of the Torah's concession:
  • Accommodation to economic reality –  R"N Rabinovich assumes that some of the Torah's laws, being written at a particular time in history, needed to address the reality of that time.  In Biblical times, slavery was a normative institution which, for economic reasons, would have been almost impossible for the people to renounce.  Ancient society relied on vast amounts of human labor and thought that it would be impossible to sustain a healthy economy without  slaves.22  As such, the Torah allowed slavery, but regulated it, improving the existing institution. This paved the way for a later period in which it might be abolished altogether.
  • Accommodation to human nature – R. Kook in contrast, appears to believe that certain laws come to address not a particular point in history, but an imperfect world in general:23
    • Combat natural exploitation of the weak – Since humans are naturally unequal, and the world is such that there are always rich and poor, various forms of enslavement and exploitation are a fact of life.24 Given this reality, the Torah institutes legal, regulated slavery to combat the unregulated "natural slavery" (i.e. exploitation of the weak) in which the poor are unprotected.
    • Elevate and protect the morally deficit – R. Kook further suggests that slavery is necessary in order to elevate those of low moral character, those who, if given freedom, would abuse it and bring evil into the world.
Protective laws – Laws such as the freeing of someone whose limb has been amputated, penalties for killing slaves, and forced rest on Shabbat, highlight how Torah endeavored to change the existing institution.
Hebrew slaves – The almost total eradication of Israelite slavery, which is really more like indentured servitude, served as an initial weaning away from the institution as a whole. Limiting slavery paved the way to later abolish it totally.
"מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ" – This position emphasizes how there is no Torah obligation25 buy a slave, because the Torah does not really find the act to be a positive one.
"עבודת פרך"
Eternal bondage