This week’s Parsha begins with some of my favourite laws in the Torah. It starts with the law of Shmittah, whereby every seventh year is a gap year for the land and its inhabitants. One is neither allowed to work the land, nor do business with anything that has grown. Instead the land belongs to anyone who cares to harvest the produce for their private use only. The widow, orphan, and destitute, all therefore became economically self-sufficient for at least one year in every seven.
Though the Torah believes in private ownership of property, the Torah also reminds us that private property notwithstanding, the earth belongs to the higher power we call God and we are merely its guardians with privileges. Since the earth needs replenishing, its farmers a break, and its poor people food to eat, the Torah killed three birds with one stone and instituted Shmittah.
Another law is that of Yovel which happens at the end of 7 Shmittah cycles, after 49 years. The 50th year is proclaimed Yovel and in that year all the property goes back to its original owners and all slaves are freed. Again, this is a restart mechanism for the imbalances of society, ensuring that those who are economically challenged will not remain so inter-generationally in a self-perpetuating cycle. The fact that everyone becomes land owners once again ensures that at the very least, the grandchildren of a failed farmer, or businessperson will be given the opportunity to create their own economic destiny.
One last noteworthy mention is the law against lending with interest. In the eyes of the Torah, if one can afford to release funds for a period of time to someone who desperately needs it, the one who has should give to the one who needs without exploiting the situation.
Unfortunately, none of these laws are kept today. However, even I, the hopeless idealist, acknowledge that practising these laws in our current global economic reality, would be an impossibility. And the rabbis found a way of explaining to us how to get around these laws, rendering their obligations effectively non-applicable.
This is why you can find religious people in finance charging interest like everyone else, and why you can purchase coriander in Shmittah years even from religious farmers.
Still, I think these laws are very relevant for instruction on the Torah’s ideas about capitalism, justice, and fairness. Clearly the Torah believes in private property. The Torah though also highlights that justice and fairness need to impose themselves. Contrary to the claims of free-market absolutists who are entirely guided by supply and demand, unless of course it’s the major institutions who need bailout, the Torah takes the position that justice and fairness are even higher ideals.
However, this Parsha also contains something which poses a serious challenge to us moderns.
As mentioned earlier, part of the laws of Yovel is that slaves gain their freedom. Though at first this sounds great, the only caveat is anything but. Basically, all Jewish slaves go free. Those who are not, do not. Instead they remain the property of their owners down through the generations. Question: How can we possibly explain this to be something which is not absolutely racist?
Now this is not mere hyperbole. The fact is that the American pro-slavery movement amongst the Confederate states who were all devout Christians, actually used this passage to argue that slavery of the black Africans was sanctioned by God! God allows the eternal slavery of certain inferior peoples to others who are more superior. Conveniently, the Africans fit into the first category, and the slave-holders into the second.
As an aside, I always find great irony in racist theories, that it is always put forward by the most under-evolved. The sadistic slave-owner who raped the girls, mercilessly beat them all, and hung a few of them too, this is the very one explaining to us that it is ok because they, the black Africans, are racially and culturally inferior! As my mum says in Hebrew, berosh haganav boer hakovah – the hat is burning on the head of the thief!
So it is not only possible for someone to make a racist case using this passage of the Torah, it actually happened very recently on a massive scale. And it was only finally quashed militarily in the bloodiest war in American history.
Where does that leave us? It seems that our options are mutually exclusive. Either we opt to believe in the absolute truth of the Torah in which case we are not only racist but our God is too, or we reject the idea that the Torah is divine and use this as proof. As a humanist I shudder at the first option. As an orthodox rabbi I cannot accept the second.
But there is another way. A way that allows us to believe in the truth of the Torah without forcing us to defend every law as applicable today.
The way to explain this was articulated by the greatest Jewish teacher of all time, the Rambam. The Rambam, who is the very author of the principle of the belief in the absolute truth of the Torah, also explained what it means. According to him, the deep truth of the Torah can only be ascertained when we understand the social context in which it was given. When we understand the milieu, he confidently asserted, we will see the moral, intellectual, and spiritual progress of every one of the laws of the Torah. Thus, to say that the Torah is true is to say that within its context it was the best possible scenario.
Had the circumstances not changed, all the Torah’s commandments would indeed still be literally applicable in exactly the way prescribed. Was society still into sacrificing little children, then animal sacrifice is still where we would be at.
To bring this back to our issue. Saying that a people cannot enslave their own but they can enslave others is only racist if one argues that today. In the context of the Torah however it is merely a manifestation of the first tentative steps humanity is taking away from the abomination of the institution of slavery. Even if the ultimate destination is liberation of all humanity so that all are recognised as human beings equal before God created in Its image, you nevertheless must start somewhere. And a good place to start is within the society. If the Torah was ever going to succeed in abolishing slavery, it must surely have required the penny to drop at least in relation to one’s own.
Of course once we allow that ownership of slaves is wrong in relation to one’s own, it follows that it would be likewise wrong to everyone else. The only people who don’t see that are the people stuck in that particular time. Consider the American Bill of Rights which declares the inalienable rights all humans have, proclaimed by those who owned slaves. Or the pro-slavery Jews sitting at the Seder table circa 1859 lamenting the terrible tragedy of slavery while being served by a slave. To us it seems ridiculous but the truth is that evolving consciousness takes time.
And evolution of consciousness is what the Torah is all about. Not necessarily as the end point always, indeed very often as the first important step in that direction.
It is true that there are people who would criticise this whole approach and view it as a slight of God and the Torah. It is for those people to offer an alternative explanation that might save us from the conclusion that the Torah is racist. Personally I find great inspiration in the thought that the Torah’s agenda is human enlightenment which is precisely the view of the greatest Jewish theologian and codifier of Jewish law, the Rambam.