I begin with a quote from M. Finley, scholar of Greco-Roman slavery in antiquity, which will serve as a proof-text for addressing slavery and rabbinic Judaism:
“It is noteworthy how much of the current debate about American slavery moves beyond disagreement about the immediate data and their interpretation to ‘other’ matters, to Catholicism and Protestantism, to racism, absentee landholding, the world cotton market, the limitations inherent in a federal state structure, ad infinitum. Serious debate about ancient slavery is no different qualitatively, though ‘other’ matters are not identical…”
Slaves appear regularly in the Mishna, the foundational work of rabbinic Judaism, and thus throughout commentaries on the Mishna and the development of Jewish law and practice. There are questions to be asked about the history of actual slaveholding among the Jews of antiquity — not whether at least some Jews owned slaves, but perhaps whether those who did, did so according to rabbinic guidelines. Be that as it may, here I will explore what Judaism’s “other matters” might be when we admit that rabbinic Judaism allows for a slave system. After all, nearly all of us, even if we do not consider ourselves “halakhic” Jews, are heirs to the rabbinic vision of what Judaism should be. There are, in fact, likely, a number of “other matters.” One that continues to have insufficiently recognized yet significant impact even today, and that I would like to address here, is in regard to the interrelated areas of marriage and sexual ethics.
Marriage is understood in rabbinic literature as a metaphorical ownership of a woman. According to the first paragraph of the mishnaic tractate Kiddushin, a woman is “acquired” by means of money (or a document or sexual intercourse); this is, legally at least, what still happens today at a Jewish wedding when the groom gives the bride a ring, standing in for money, under the chuppah. What is more, the next paragraphs of the Mishna discuss how other items are acquired, including animals, real estate, and slaves. Women are thus further associated with the property of the male householder — which means that rabbis can use slaves to think and reason about wives, women, and marriage. For example, divorce in rabbinic Judaism, and thus strands of modern Judaism, is actually the process of undoing the husband’s ownership. Thus the rabbis can think about divorce by analogy to the process of manumitting a slave, beginning with the fact that it is in its legal form a unilateral act of the husband (other similarities include the ways in which the relevant documents should be written and delivered). In our day, the unilateral nature of divorce has contributed to the “agunah” crisis for women — Orthodox women or women seeking divorce within the Charedi-run courts in Israel — who cannot leave Jewish marriages because their husbands refuse to grant a divorce or use the divorce as a form of blackmail.
Rabbinic ideas about sexual ethics, too, especially for women, are also deeply influenced by the lack of sexual agency that is typical for slaves (it should be noted that this is the case for Roman and early Christian ethics as well). One of the definitions of a slave is a person who is subject to the control of others over his/her body, whether by means of forced labor, physical punishments, and/or sexual abuse. A free person, then, is defined as the inverse, a person who has, and is expected to maintain, the integrity of his/her body — especially her body. For example, the Jewish marriage contract, the ketubah, is intensely interested in a woman’s sexual history. At one time, this document was a binding, enforceable form of prenuptial agreement, meant to provide a woman with financial security if her husband divorced or predeceased her. Only a full-fledged Israelite virgin is entitled to the maximum amount, 200 zuz. A freed slave-woman, however, is only entitled to 100; her nonvirginity is presumed. Even today, although its significance is largely ceremonial, many Jewish women receive a traditional ketubah at their weddings. Since few Jews today understand Aramaic (the language of the ketubah), few realize that the bride’s status as previously unmarried, or as previously divorced, widowed, or Jewish-by-choice, is likely to be inscribed therein.
While a full discussion of other relevant cases is not possible here, even these two examples demonstrate that Jewish slaveholding laws are hardly only historical vestiges. The “other matters” of slavery continue to reverberate in Jewish practice; we do ourselves no favors pretending otherwise.email print