The First Civil Rights Movement
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
957 BCE: The Beis HaMikdash (temple) shone like a jewel among the hills of Jerusalem. At that time, Torah law determined the governmental, legal, and social structures of the land. The Jewish country was honoured and admired among the nations, and gentile citizens living in the country were equally bound within its the legal system.
For most countries of that time, oppression of minorities was de rigueur. As the land was primarily inhabited by Jews at that time, gentiles were certainly the minority. However, Torah law allowed gentiles to engage in commerce without restriction, become wealthy, and even to purchase Jewish slaves to serve in their homes. This was exceptionally liberal for the ancient world.
Jewish slavery was not a forced, abusive practice, but a permissible legal solution to personal financial quandaries. Individual Jews unable to sustain themselves in any other way could sell themselves into slavery to another Jew or to a gentile in order to gain recompense. But bear in mind that the purchase of Jewish slaves for gentile masters stood in opposition to the interests of the nation. As Jewish wellbeing and prosperity has always depended on the fealty of every Jew to the Torah, becoming a member of a non-Jewish household put the individual Jew and the entire nation in spiritual danger.
Despite this, Torah did not take any action to overturn or void such transactions. The Jewish slave remained the undisputed property of the gentile purchaser. The right of gentile citizens to freely exercise their financial means was protected by Torah law. Action was taken to rectify this dangerous spiritual situation, but not to the detriment of the non-Jew. In contrast to other nations of the ancient world, Torah law dictated a radically different focus:
“If the means of a sojourner who resides with you shall become sufficient, and your brother becomes impoverished...and he is sold to a foreigner who resides with you...after he has been sold, he shall have a redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him, or his uncle, or his cousin shall redeem him, or a relative from his family shall redeem him; or if his own means become sufficient, he shall be redeemed.” (VaYikra-Leviticus 25:47-49)
In the ancient world, the rights of foreign minorities were simply not a consideration in comparison to the safety and wellbeing of the nation, and when foreigners put native citizens in danger the “rights” of the minority flew out the window. Adhering to the interests of the ruling power was enforced through discrimination and oppression. This wasn’t frowned upon at that time. It was entirely taken for granted.
In stark contrast, Torah directed Jewish government and legal bodies away from taking the easy way out. Instead of forcing gentiles to void their purchases, or discriminating against gentile citizens by prohibiting them from purchasing local slave labour at all, Torah insisted that gentiles’ financial investments be honoured. To “redeem” a Jewish slave from gentile servitude meant to buy back his freedom with fair pay.
The Torah’s long list of who can and ought to do this – brothers, uncles, cousins, relatives – emphasizes that oppression of the foreigner is not where our efforts must lie, but in galvanizing our own resources. The length of the list also expresses the great importance of the mitzvah to redeem captives.
Yet lest the enthusiasm for redeeming the enslaved Jew grows to overshadow the sense of justice and fairness meant to rule the process, Torah immediately follows its impassioned call for Jewish slave redemption with a detailed description of how to determine the appropriate re-purchase price:
“He shall make a reckoning with his purchaser from the year he was sold to him until the Yovel (Jubilee) Year; the money of his purchase shall be divided by the number of years... If there are yet many years, he shall repay his redemption accordingly...” (ibid 50-51)
Torah cuts off the option of swindling gentile slave-owners with a meagre, symbolic redemption fee. Instead Torah demands full recompense for the gentile by outlining a program based on the number of years that the Jewish slave would otherwise have been in his service. As every slave automatically went free at the completion of each fifty-year yovel (Jubilee) cycle, the payment for redemption covered the remaining years that would otherwise have been spent in service to the purchaser based on the original purchase price.
We take human rights and the protection of minorities for granted, but these concepts barely existed in the ancient world. I don’t know about you, but what first comes to mind when I think of the ancient world are things like child sacrifice and bloodthirsty monarchies. It wasn’t pretty back then.
The concepts of justice, fairness, and equality that we expect from any civilized government today are sourced in Torah laws like these. One of the reasons that we are called the Chosen People is because we are meant to serve as “a light unto the nations”. By studying and actualizing Torah directives, we serve as role models for all peoples.
Civilization has come a long way since child sacrifice and bloodthirsty monarchies. Despite the Jewish oppression and struggle of millennia, it looks like we might just be doing a good job.