Why did the Torah permit slavery even if the system was better than the prevailing practice?
Forgive me for writing so briefly about such an important issue. I have, by the way, dealt with a similar question in an essay available at my website here.
First of all, I would point out that our society is far from perfect in the matter of slavery: while we may not give it that name (to avoid guilty feelings) I suspect that illegal immigrants working (and often suffering abuse) as domestics etc., or children in the 3rd world who manufacture our cheap consumer goods (not to mention, If you’ll excuse me, prostitutes in every city) are as much hired against their will at proportionately lower wages than blacks in early 19th Century America (after all, the black slaves were fed and clothed). It’s not that I’m justifying slavery in any context, but I’m simply stating that it’s alive and well in our society and actively supported by all of us.
So, assuming that it’s somehow an inseparable part of the human condition, channeling slavery towards something productive is the best one can expect. For example, Hagar and Eliezer (the slaves of Abraham) were refined individuals with a thirst for spiritual greatness who would, nonetheless, have had no access to the mentoring and heights they both achieved without being slaves. Similarly with Tavi, a brilliant and beloved slave of Rabbi Gamliel of the Talmud (who is quoted a number of times through the Talmud).
Maybe we could measure slavery against the principle of private ownership (which the Torah does allow). People of wealth value and defend their personal rights despite the fact that those rights can easily engender various social abuses. Wealth, for instance, has tended to remain within fairly limited and closed classes and those without have often suffered untold indignities and want. The wealthy have the power to dominate and dictate to their workers, and often in ways inimical to their best interests. Property is often used as an artificial social measuring-stick of virtue and worth; disenfranchising noble and deserving individuals (Marx wasn’t a complete fool: he did have some strong arguments, even if his practical application was malicious and, ironically, his anti-Semitism was blinding). So private ownership almost necessitates abuse. Nevertheless, it would seem that the general good is better served by the protection of private ownership than by its alternative: communism is only one practical historical example of the potential for public corruption.
In slavery, too, there is the potential for abuse, but I don’t believe that the system is intrinsically abusive (while I’m certainly not advocating its use).
Let’s analyze it: What, exactly, is slavery’s evil? There is, of course, the possibility that owners, in a position of tempting authority, might impose their will on their slaves through violence or some other kind of force. But that’s not a necessary outcome (at least not more so than the pain of poverty in a free market economy). Given a healthy and kind society, such cruelty could well become the rare exception.
More central to slavery, however, is the fact that a man or a woman is consigned from birth to a life of labor and poverty and that one human being’s freedom of personal choice is curtailed in favor of another’s. That is certainly a sad state, though one that’s worse than the sadness found in any society in degree rather than in kind (how many of us even in our “free” world could truly pick up everything this week and move to the tropical resort of our choice? Which of us could even contemplate retiring to such a place?). But is that as bad as the cruelty of adultery or the corruption of paganism? Isn’t it, with all its flaws, more similar to societies living by the free-market system?
With best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton