"Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof." This phrase from our parashah, Behar (Leviticus 25:10) is famously inscribed upon the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and these words have resounded as a message of hope for the oppressed throughout the world. Yet ourparashah also contains a darker message that endorses slavery, just as America has paired proclamations of liberty with cruel practices of slavery and discrimination throughout its history. In the same chapter of Leviticus we read that non-Israelite residents of the land may be acquired as permanent slaves and may be kept "as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time."
What are we to make of this contradiction? Why does the Torah view slavery as anathema for Israelites but acceptable for their neighbors? We might expect to find a rationale based on the assertion of religious, racial, or at least ethnic superiority, but none of these concepts are present in Leviticus. Rather, our portion offers a theological explanation: Israelites may not become permanent slaves to other people, whether kinsmen or strangers, because they are already slaves to another master-the Lord who redeemed them from Egypt.
That's right. The exodus from Egypt is not, in this telling, about the rejection of slavery as a moral outrage, but rather about God's exclusive ownership of the people of Israel. The chapter emphasizes this point in its final verse: "For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God" (25:54). On this basis, Jews have always been active in liberating enslaved brethren but have often acquiesced to and have periodically participated in the enslavement of non-Jews throughout history, until the Civil War.
Following President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and then more completely in the 13th Amendment, American law forbade slavery. Jewish law submitted to civil law under the principle of dina d'malkhuta dina, that financial rules are determined by the government, but there was no mechanism for a Jewish version of an emancipation proclamation until the birth of Israel.
The State of Israel lacks a constitution by design, but in its 1948 Declaration of Statehood, and, more explicitly in its 1992 Basic Law: Human Liberty and Dignity, it makes the following statement: "Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free." This is a powerful moral and legal statement of which we Jews should be particularly proud.
Despite these bold American and Israeli statements, slavery in different forms has not disappeared-not in 1865, not in 1948, not in 1992, nor even today. We just saw racism at its worst with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and sadly, anti-Semitism and other prejudice exists at every turn.
There are many reasons to celebrate Israeli independence as we did this week. Among them is the unprecedented opportunity for the Jewish people to exercise a collective moral action such as Israel has done with its Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. No prior Jewish source has said as clearly what this law said-that slavery is forbidden across-the-board for all people. As Jews, we should be proud of this unequivocal document, but more than pride is asked of us. The anti-slavery sentiments of modern democracies such as Israel and the United States must be translated into a reality in which the enslavement and even subjugation of any human being becomes impossible.
The Jewish task is to proclaim this message, to oppose enslavement and oppression, and to stand for liberty and dignity for all. We must name these ideals, confront the ugly reality of continued enslavement, and dedicate ourselves to fulfilling the broader mandate, which began with: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof!"
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
Rabbi Abraham will be away at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention next week where he has been given the honor of presenting about our successful Young Family Programs. His message will return on May 23rd.