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February 12, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mishpatim

This week’s portion begins with a discussion of the law of Hebrew slaves, requiring them to be liberated after seven years unless they desire continued slavery (Exodus 21).  It then states: “And if a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do.” (21:7).  One might think this verse is meant to compare Hebrew male slaves to Hebrew female slaves [if ‘slave’ is the right word here- really, we’re talking about parents selling their prepubescent daughters to be a more affluent man’s wife, not to do hard labor a la the slaves in Egypt].

But the term used for ‘man-servants’ is “haavadim” while the Torah’s earlier discussion of Hebrew slaves specifically references their Jewish ancestry through terms such as “eved ivri” (Hebrew slave).  Nachmanides infers from this that the Torah is in fact comparing female Hebrews to male non-Jewish slaves, saying that female Jews shall not “go out” as male gentiles.  How so?

To answer this question, you might ask: when are gentile slaves liberated?  When they have an eye or tooth knocked out by a Jewish master (21:26).  Nachmanides infers from this that if a Jewish female slave has an eye or tooth knocked out, she does NOT “go out” (that is, is not liberated).

Now that this point, you should be asking yourself “hey, wait a minute?  Does Nachmanides mean that Jewish masters have carte blanche to beat up female slaves! What nasty stuff!” 

Nachmanides explains that “instead, he [the master] is to pay her monetary compensation for the tooth or eye, and she shall stay with him up to the time [of six years, or before if she produces signs of puberty] to be designated as the master’s wife.  for it would be a great injustice if, after causing her the loss of a tooth in his anger and blemishing her thereby, he would then send her out of his house, when she had hoped to become his wife.”

In other words, Nachmanides thinks that a young girl (or more precisely, a girl from a family so poor that they would sell her) would prefer to get some spending money for her lost tooth/eye/whatever and then to be her abuser’s wife rather than being ‘sent out.”  

To me, this is another reminder that on some issues, the Torah really does speak to the ways of 3500 years ago but not to those of today.   3500 years ago, girls were (I would guess) more economically dependent on men than today.

 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (the chief rabbi of the UK) speaks more broadly to the issue of slavery in the Torah: In this week’s dvar torah he writes-

Change is possible in human nature but it takes time: time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia. There is little doubt that in terms of the Torah’s value system the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity…     So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord.

Perhaps the same is true of gender relations.  The Torah’s laws acknowledge that in the world of the 13th century BCE, girls, especially girls from low-income families, will be powerless enough to settle for a bit of domestic violence.  But perhaps by creating some boundaries to male abuse of power, it helped to set in motion the chain of events that has led to a somewhat less brutal, sexist society.


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