Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Slavery: Is It Evil?


[Sarah Ford, former slave, Texas c. 1936]

The Torah permits slavery ( Leviticus 25:44). On the other hand, Proverbs 3:17 states, in reference to wisdom, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” In that case, how can the Torah, the embodiment of divine wisdom, condone the evil of slavery?

I believe the answer is that slavery is not essentially evil.

Generally slavery occurs under certain specific conditions. First of all, there must be a high demand for unskilled labor. Second of all, there must be a large community of primitive people available who can be forced, with minimal supervision, to do that labor.

In ancient Rome, slaves were often German barbarians. In medieval Europe Slavs were often enslaved and the English word “slave” comes from them. In modern times, Europeans enslaved black Africans. I believe that generally, slaves were far more primitive technologically than their masters since otherwise it would be difficult to capture them and perhaps even more difficult to make them work without payment. Educated people tend to find ways to malinger, escape or revolt. They will only work under heavy guard, which is expensive and therefore negates the benefit of using slaves. (This probably was the real reason closing the Soviet labor camps in the 1950’s.)

Therefore, we see that slavery tended to introduce primitive people to more advanced societies and thereby to spread civilization. Seemingly, slavery is similar to colonialism and it often existed in connection with colonialism. Colonialism could be brutal, however it could be benign as well. The same may be true of slavery. I would not say that slave traders and slave owners were exactly Peace Corp volunteers, however that may not be so far from the truth.

Witness the results of slavery in modern times. Although I do not condone the unneeded cruelty of some American slave owners, and neither does Judaism, however if not for slavery, millions of blacks would not be enjoying a comfortable life in America. People like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright may be filled with hatred for white Americans, however perhaps they should have a little gratitude also. What type life style do their never enslaved cousins in Africa have? In fact, even when held as slaves, many blacks enjoyed a decent standard of living. The net result of slavery over history has probably been positive.

Within Judaism, slavery meant that the slave had a semi-Jewish status (he would be circumcised if male, observe the Sabbath, but not attend synagogue) and and upon being freed, which inevitably happened eventually to the slave or his descendants, he became a full-fledged Jew. There can be little doubt that the ancestors of many modern Jews were at one time slaves owned by Jews. Slavery therefore was a means to spiritually enlighten primitive gentiles. Apparently because of this, the Catholic Church fought repeatedly against the Jewish ownership of gentile slaves.

32 comments:

DrJ said...

Interesting spin.
Whether it is "evil" or not, isn't it a negative social phenomenon? If I could find a location in the world now where the conditions you mentioned exist, according to your theory we would be doing the slaves a favor by enslaving them.

Slavery, polygamy and colonialism were in essence forms of exploitation that were considered acceptable in a primitive world and now are not.

So you argue that only God can give us an absolute morality, otherwise people will do bad things, but here, you come up with an excuse for "natural" human behavior (for the stronger to exploit the weaker) as actually being a positive thing, and that's why God allowed it.

By your logic we should allow prostitution, because the johns are actually doing a favor to the women by paying them and raising their standard of living.

Sounds like you're becoming a social Darwinist.

jewish philosopher said...

The Torah doesn't allow all kinds of natural behavior. Cannibalism is natural. My wife once had hamsters and when the female gave birth to a litter, the male proceeded to eat them. This post is basically just an attempt to reconcile Leviticus 25:44 with Proverbs 3:17.

Actually, I would legalize prostitution for gentiles. (I see Cameron nodding in approval over there.)

And again, if you do the research, I think you'll find that overall slavery was beneficial. Although they were brought here against their will, would American blacks today be better off if we (my ancestors owned slaves in colonial New York) had not brought them?

SimchaGross said...

Jewish Philosopher,
Perhaps, to be true to your title, you should look at Jewish sources to solve some of your questions, or at least to know that there are such approaches.
Slavery in Judaism is far from the slavery as we know it. You were not allowed to beat your slave (if you did, and injured them, they were free and you had to reimburse them), you had to give him food and support his family as well. The Gemarah in Kiddushin says that "He who purchases a slave purchases a master" because of the significant responsibility one has towards them.
Also, people didn't simply go into slavery for any reason. Many of them went into slavery because they had large debts and no way to pay it off, and so were basically servants to the debtor until they paid him back.
Thus the question, according to the Gemarah (one that the true Volozhiners were sure to know), is a non-question, since the two slaveries are entirely unparalleled.

jewish philosopher said...

Those rules only apply to a case where a Jew buys a Jewish slave, a practice abolished when the Ten Tribes were exiled.

jewish philosopher said...

"Slavery, polygamy and colonialism were in essence forms of exploitation that were considered acceptable in a primitive world and now are not."

Right. In the modern world, only killing unborn babies is OK.

SimchaGross said...

Jewish Philosopher,
See the last chapter of Maimonides "Laws of Slaves" (Hilchot Avadim) to see how you are wrong. Though the laws pertaining to a Jewish Slave and a Canaanite Slave differ, nevertheless the Canaanite slave was a different type of slavery as well. He was expected to keep the bare minimum of the commandments (which, in the religious view, is a privilege) and was considered a full convert upon being freed. The Jews of the town were required to give him charity (Tzedaka) just as much as they were required to give their fellow Jews charity. And look at the last two laws of Maimonides where he discusses how we are expected not to simply give the slave the bare minimum, but show true compassion and be kind to him to the furthest extent. This is a beautiful example of how the ancient laws (Torah, Ancient Near East) rarely distinguish conspicuously between laws that are ideal and laws that delineate the most basic, but least ideal situation. This is seen in other laws, like giving charity to the Priest, where from a strictly biblical perspective you only have to give a single kernel of produce, yet in the Talmud it is seriously encouraged to give far more then that.

jewish philosopher said...

I think I more or less said this.

SimchaGross said...

Pray tell, how did your comments resemble mine in any way?

DrJ said...

"Cannibalism is natural"

Not my taste personally.

jewish philosopher said...

I have read accounts that human flesh is actually similar tasting to pork, but without heartburn. But then again, guys like me aren't into pork either.

Baal Habos said...

Your timing is impeccable. During the Season we Jews celebrate redemption from Slavery, you laud it.

jewish philosopher said...

Absolutely. God took us out of Egyptian slavery so that we could be His slaves. If not for that, the Jews might have been better off staying there.

Baal Habos said...

>God took us out of Egyptian slavery so that we could be His slaves.

That's some God.

BTW, where do you get such nice large Gif's?

jewish philosopher said...

God is not our fairy godmother, Bos.

The illustration for this post is from the Library of Congress website.

Unmolested Altar Boy said...

What we are seeing here is Jacob's lame, historically ignorant, evidence innocence attempt to slavery.

Why is he doing this? It is because he recognizes that secular morality is vastly superior to his religious beliefs. However, he is unwilling to concede that because of the implications of that to his faith and the fact that people like myself, Cameron, and a few others would crow like cows about our superiority.

jewish philosopher said...

Sure. Secular morality is infinitely superior to my morality.

Unmolested Altar Boy said...

Yes, because a video produced by God-fearing African-American Christians is representative of secular morality. Cameron already corrected you on this point. This means you know better, but decided to repeat false information. I'd call you dishonest, but given your make-up-as-you-go-along morality, it is probably an acceptable thing to do.

Also, you need to correct your article. Neither the German barbarians nor the Slavs were not "far more primitive technologically than their masters". These were Roman and Western European conceits about the "other".

You also need to note that "educated people tend to find ways to malinger, escape or revolt. " was not true of African-American slaves, who despite being denied education were able to "find ways to malinger, escape or revolt".

You also need to read David Einhorn's writings on the slavery issue.

When you've done all that, come back. Then thank Cameron and myself for magnanimously providing you with a free education, and then I (and probably Cameron too) will continue your remedial history lesson. Then we'll even keep doing free of charge as we are nice people.

jewish philosopher said...

So Umolested, you seem to be saying that abortion is being endorsed solely by God-fearing Christians while secularists bitterly oppose abortion. Sources, please.

You also seem to be saying that Germans were as advanced as Romans in ancient times and Slavs were as advanced as Germans in the Middle Ages. Sources, please.

True, African slaves did revolt, escape and malinger and therefore slavery ended.

DrJ said...

2 Question for JP:

According to your philosophy/theology, is everything that happens God's will?
If some things aren't, how do you know what is and what isn't?

jewish philosopher said...

Everything is. Check out the first principle.

DrJ said...

OK, so if the holocaust is caused by God, as punishment for sins, such as the Reform movement, how do we know that the "sinful acts" themselves aren't gods will?
How can you tell what is man's "free will" sinful act and what is God's punishment? How can anybody say which is cause and which is effect? Maybe the holocaust was punishment for the Hasidic movement, or the Lithuanian Yeshivas, that were so prominent at the time? Or maybe the State of Israel was punishment to the world for the holocaust?
How can anybody say?

jewish philosopher said...

It's my understanding that God does not influence our choice, but He decides are actions. You can choose to shoot someone, but God will decide if the gun will fire or not.

About the Holocaust being caused by the Jewish Enlightenment, if someone smokes heavily and then dies of lung cancer at age 45, do we know the smoking caused his death? Probably not, but it's a reasonable assumption.

Unmolested Altar Boy said...

"So Umolested, you seem to be saying that abortion is being endorsed solely by God-fearing Christians while secularists bitterly oppose abortion. Sources, please."

I said nothing of the sort and you know better you damnable mongoloid. What I stated, and I'll repeat because you're a dishonest get, is that "a video produced by God-fearing African-American Christians is representative of secular morality. Cameron already corrected you on this point. This means you know better, but decided to repeat false information. I'd call you dishonest, but given your make-up-as-you-go-along morality, it is probably an acceptable thing to do."

If you lie, steal, libel, plagiarize believing that a god is reading your mind and watching your children in the shower, I shudder at the monster that you'll become as your faith develops.

I like the shift from "barbarians" to Germans. Anyway, while the Romans were more advance in fields in engineering, the barbarians beat them to advances like soap and the stirrup. Source- My 10th grade history class.

As for the Slavs, Kingdoms like Serbia under Dusan I, the kingdom of Croatia under Tomislav I, and the Bosnian king were larger than many at some points, most of the dinky German principalities of the time.

They were also part of the Byzantine cultural tradition, which was advanced as any in Europe.

Otherwise how would the South Slavs be able to defeat opponents like the Turks at battles like Kosovo in 1389?

"African slaves did revolt, escape and malinger and therefore slavery ended."

Uhh, you're missing a little thing I like to call the Civil War.

Just admit it, secular morality is superior to your religion opinions on the slavery issue.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm not sure how soapy the Germans of 2,000 years ago were, however their small, nomadic villages didn't seem to compare to the Roman Empire.

I don't think black slavery would have continued into the 20th century, even with no Civil War. It wouldn't have paid.

DrJ said...

"You can choose to shoot someone, but God will decide if the gun will fire or not."

But there is an inherent absurdity in that situation. For if a person freely decides to engage in an act, and the success is solely determined by God, then what guilt does he have? I could decide to rob or shoot somebody or cheat on taxes, and then say, "well, if I succeed I am carrying out God's will", the take my chances with afterwordly punishment.

"About the Holocaust being caused by the Jewish Enlightenment, if someone smokes heavily and then dies of lung cancer at age 45, do we know the smoking caused his death? Probably not, but it's a reasonable assumption"

I assume that you infer which is the cause and which is effect from the Torah or Talmud. Enlightenment was bad, and holocaust punishment. Right? Wrong! How do you know that enlightenment (as part of the general emancipation and industrial revolution) wasn't the punishment for something else (say, kollels)? Didn't God destroy his own temple and nearly destroy Judaism because of people's sins and corruption, according to your own reasoning?

What's the connection to slavery? On this post you argue a completely naturalistic cause and effect flow of events, without once invoking divine intervention, right or wrong, or punishment. According to your philosophy, it would seem hard to believe that God would be completely neutral to slavery, especially on a massive scale, yet nearly wipe out most of European Jewry, including God fearing ones, because of the "sins" of a few skeptics. Seems absurd to me.

Unmolested Altar Boy said...

Jacob,

Say your god gives a man's twins I don't know cerbal palsy, does this

"if someone smokes heavily and then dies of lung cancer at age 45, do we know the smoking caused his death? Probably not, but it's a reasonable assumption"

still hold true? Is your god punishing you for your sins?

jewish philosopher said...

DrJ, I don't think I follow you. We must follow God's instructions and if we don't we are punished. If a murderer chooses to kill he will be punished, although his victim would certainly have died from some other cause had he not chosen to kill.

Unmolested Altar Boy said...

"We must follow God's instructions and if we don't we are punished. "

So, umm, Jacob, what is your god punishing you for?

jewish philosopher said...

Have you ever seen the cartoon On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog? Is that you, unmolested?

DrJ said...

"We must follow God's instructions and if we don't we are punished."

For the sake of argument, let's say that's true.

1. For any particular event, good or bad, without a divine prophet or voice, how does anybody have a clue what is a reward or punishment for what? In the infinite range of good and bad things that happen to all good and bad people, who can tell what's God's reaction to what? As you know, human psychology, reward and punishment, is only useful to change behavior unless there is a clear and consistent link between the person doing the act, the act itself, and the reaction.
When it is all so vague, inscrutable and inconsitent, it is useless as a way to learn anything or change behavior. This makes God a pretty bad teacher, or he's sadistic, enjoying all of our repeated mistakes and punishing us for them. In fact, in this view Jewish history is nothing but a continuous and unending narrative of sin and punishment. Kind of hard to believe.

All of this, of course, ignores what we know about causality, probability and the naturalistic causes of the human condition.

"although his victim would certainly have died from some other cause had he not chosen to kill."

Certainly? What evidence is there for that? If the Israeli police catch a suicide bomber on his way and prevent the death of 10 people, they would certainly die anyway?

jewish philosopher said...

I have a post about reward and punishment.

If a murderer kills someone then he must have been destined to die for some reason at that time.

Joseph said...

There is a well-known passage authorizing lenient treatment for the accidental death of a fetus right next to a passage authorizing similar lenient treatment for the accidental death of a slave.

Clearly, abortion and slavery should be banned at the same time. (They were banned within a few decades of each other.)