“You can acquire slaves from the nations that surround you” (Lev 25.44)
It always comes as a shock to my Bnei Mitzvah students when they get to the part of the Torah that contains laws about slavery by Israelites, not just of Israelites.
We all know the Pesach refrain – we were slaves in Egypt, and the idea of freedom from oppression is a core part of our Jewish identities.
But in the Torah we also read about the slavery inflicted by the former Hebrew slaves onto others.
It’s a hard fact to accept that Jews kept slaves right after Egypt, or that the writers of the Torah chose to discuss slavery while still fresh in the minds of the Israelites.
The Torah does highlight some rights and protections, including limiting servitude to six years, giving a sense and value to slaves as human beings.
Except, of course, for the non-Israelite slave.
The non-Israelite slave was property, could be mated to breed more slaves, could not choose his or her partner or reject him/her for that matter, and could lose their children if the master decided it.
And here lies our discomfort.
But how can we use that dismay to inspire us today, in an age where we know modern slavery exists and not just in faraway countries?
We have no issues with questioning the Torah for its lack of denunciation of slavery. But do we ask the same question of our own lives? The least we can do is look for the shadow of forced labour where we live and work.
The existence of slaves and slavery laws in our tradition can be seen as a blight, or it can teach us that we should not brush the most difficult aspects of our world under the carpet.
Rabbi Sandra Kviat is rabbi at Crouch End Chavurah