It’s easy to think the Israelites of the Torah, newly freed from Egypt, would unhesitatingly condemn slavery as we do today. The reality is more complex.
There are clear Jewish laws on caring for slaves: Shabbat is for all, not just Jews: “you should not do any work, you… nor your manservant…”
The Torah, surely, was ahead of its time in directing us how to treat workers. Seen today, allowing the same rights to a slave is hardly enlightened. But consider those affected by human trafficking or the conditions allegedly endured by Sports Direct employees. The principle that workers should have equal rights to employers is not a given.
It also states Israelites in dire need could sell themselves into servitude, but this arrangement was explicitly temporary. Non-Israelites weren’t so lucky: “You may keep them as a possession for your children… for them to inherit as property…” (Leviticus 23:46). How can we square these practices with the cry of “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20)?
Rules limiting slavery challenged the way society was built and prompted Jews to question an institution perhaps so natural it was invisible. Does our Judaism goes far enough in engaging with society? Can we congratulate ourselves for being relatively just, or should we push ourselves, campaigning against slavery, positively for living wages, and considerately to avoid unethically made cheap goods? We condemn slavery but have not eliminated it and may unwittingly support it.
The Torah, which always needs to be considered in contemporary context, initiated a conversation in its time. With the International Labour Organisation estimating that 21 million people live as slaves in our modern world, what action will we take in ours?