We need to talk about slavery. As American society seems to be going up in flames around us, we need — we absolutely need — to open our hearts and our mouths and begin to talk about the legacy of slavery, a legacy which sometimes feels as if it will never be resolved.
Haftarat Mishpatim gives us a framework — albeit a troubling one — to start the conversation. We read that B’nai Yisrael held slaves, even Hebrew slaves. We know this because the scripture tells us the rules about how to treat Hebrew slaves. (Hint: it’s a hair’s-breadth above how to treat other slaves, and it’s still no good.) In Mishpatim we are reminded that our ancestors were obligated by divine covenant to release all Hebrew slaves after six years of servitude. Which means G-d knew this was happening and didn’t put a stop to it.
The premise of this covenant regarding Hebrew slaves is bothering me, as a Jew and as a human being. How is it that our ancestors — of all people — could not see and acknowledge the harm of slavery? Having been enslaved ourselves and having redemption from slavery as one of our foundational stories, it is the height of arrogance and inhumanity to accept slavery as a practice. We are constantly being reminded in our sacred texts to take care of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. How is it that our sacred texts do not also teach that slavery — the depths of our people’s degradation when we were in Egypt — is wicked, unredeemable?
It’s like a reverse dayeinu: it’s bad enough that we did not condemn slavery. It’s worse that we held slaves ourselves. And it’s still worse that we enslaved our Hebrew brothers and sisters.
But did we? This bothered Rashi, too. Rashi suggested that perhaps the proof text (Exodus 21:2) meant to refer to acquiring a servant from a Hebrew, rather than one who is him- or herself a Hebrew. Or that it meant you had acquired a Hebrew servant by means of redeeming him or her or them from destitution.
Cold comfort. We are still talking calmly about the prospect of one human being claiming ownership over another. We are taught above all else to love our neighbor; holding slaves does not fit with that. Gratefully, present-day Jewish authorities have caught up and we no longer accept slavery as an acceptable institution.
Still, I hold that we need to talk about slavery.
Americans need to talk about slavery.
Perhaps you are thinking that slavery ended in the US on New Year’s Day in 1863, with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Actually the Emancipation Proclamation was incomplete, only freeing slaves in ten Confederate states. The thirteenth amendment, enacted on December 6, 1865 after more than a year working its way through both houses of Congress, provided a more thorough coverage, in that it declared slavery and involuntary servitude illegal throughout the United States, except as punishment for a crime.
It’s that loophole that bothers me, for following on the heels of the Civil War’s end, laws began to be passed that effectively separated and oppressed the newly freed slaves. African-Americans, on whose backs the country was built, were systematically discriminated against in where they could live, learn, eat, even where they could take a drink of water. Although the slaves were freed, these laws, known collectively as Jim Crow laws, kept whites and African-Americans separate. The lives of the former slaves were made hard through legislation rather than through slavery. Segregation was a subtler — barely subtler — way of keeping African-Americans socially and economically enslaved. The law picked up where the whip left off.
It took about a century to dismantle the Jim Crow laws, but the criminalization of black skin continues still. From drug laws that disproportionately target minority populations to police brutality to the school-to-prison pipeline, we are still suffering as a society from the ripple effect that began with slavery.
So we need — we still need — to talk about slavery. We need to talk about slavery in America, and I would argue that American Jews are uniquely positioned to open the conversation.
Jeremiah 34:15 describes how B’nai Yisrael at first did the right thing, releasing the Hebrew slaves. But then in pasuk 16, we read:
וַתָּשֻׁ֙בוּ֙ וַתְּחַלְּל֣וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י וַתָּשִׁ֗בוּ אִ֤ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּוֹ֙ וְאִ֣ישׁ אֶת־שִׁפְחָת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־שִׁלַּחְתֶּ֥ם חָפְשִׁ֖ים לְנַפְשָׁ֑ם וַתִּכְבְּשׁ֣וּ אֹתָ֔ם לִֽהְי֣וֹת לָכֶ֔ם לַעֲבָדִ֖ים וְלִשְׁפָחֽוֹת׃
But now you have turned back and have profaned my name. Each of you has brought back the men and women whom you had given their freedom, and forced them to be your slaves again.
The consequences Jeremiah predicts for doing so are fearsome: G-d promises violence, disease, and famine; and pledges to make those who break the covenant a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. The word of G-d as it came to Jeremiah is beginning to make a critique of slavery and to articulate its consequences.
As I survey the American social climate these days, it’s clear to me that the systematic oppression of non-whites is equally consequential, and that we need to dismantle the systems that oppress. Naming them openly is a good and necessary first step.
We need to talk about slavery. Let’s start today.