Mishpatim from a feminist point of view

Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman articulates a feminist critiqueof Mishpatim that addresses both ancient shortcomings and modern-day slavery

This is one of the 54-parashiot of the ICJW Bea Zucker Online Bible Study Program “The Five Books of Moses: Contemporary Issues and Classic Perspectives” written by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman. Dr. Haberman is a Jerusalem-based theologian, educator and social entrepreneur. She initiated the Israeli prayer movement, “Women of the Wall”, a twenty-five year strong movement for women’s full participation and leadership of public religious practice. Dr. Haberman has taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew Universities. Click here to download the other Parshiot in English or Spanish.

This parasha sets out ethical guidelines for Israelite society, seeking to install respect for the dignity of human life and our responsibilities to one another. Beginning with limitations on relationships of power, such as holding slaves, the Torah protects against potential abuses by obligating masters to set their slaves free after seven years, or when the master causes serious physical harm to the slave. Rules of liability for hurt or damage we cause to one another, standards of caution and restitution, and requirements to care for the poor, weak, and disadvantaged are interspersed with laws about faith and religious practice—sacrifices to other gods are prohibited as is the meat torn by beasts of the field. The observance of shabbat and the sabbatical year—rest for people, their animals, and the land are part of the ethical structure. In return for accepting the legal code, God promises to protect the people and lead them into the land from which the previous inhabitants will be routed. Moshe seals the covenant between God and the Children of Israel with a ritual sacrifice and blood sprinkling at a gathering where they commit to perform all that is required of them. With Moshe, Aaron and his children, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders behold the divine.

Moshe leaves the community to commune with God for forty days and nights while the people await his return.

Commenting on the opening verse about slavery in our parasha (Ex. 21:2), Ramban draws connections between this law and central themes of Judaism: the Exodus from slavery, the first commandment, and the Creation of the universe.

This section of civil laws opens with the laws about Hebrew slaves because it contains the aspect of freeing the slave on the seventh year in remembrance of Exodus from Egypt which is mentioned in the first of the TenCommandments [Ex. 20: 2I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: 3 You shall have no other gods besides Me.] as it says, ―you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today” [Deut. 15:15]. It also mentions Creation, referring to Shabbat, because the seventh year is a sabbatical for a slave from laboring for his master—like the seventh day. It also refers to another seven in years—the jubilee, because the seventh is special among days, years and sabbaticals… (Ramban on Ex. 21:2)

Ramban goes on to discuss the hidden meaning of the law of the Hebrew slave and how it is one of the foundations of Creation. He cites verses from the prophet Jeremiah, and states that disregard for this law brings on exile from our land—an indication of its importance and worthiness to be positioned at the head of the mishpatim-laws. Having escaped their taskmasters, the Israelites are still preoccupied with the master-slave relationships—it has been their social framework for hundreds of years. In spite of Ramban’s claims, and the apparent relevance of the topic to the protagonists in the story, the text about slavery seems paradoxical to us: following the Israelite Exodus from slavery, the Jewish civil code begins with rules about holding slaves. Having struggled so hard to introduce liberation and escape from oppression, we might ask why the Torah seems to accept slavery in Jewish society? The Torah plainly states that compassion for those under our authority comes from our own experience of the abuses of slavery in Egypt.

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress her/him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

In view of the fact that Western nations abolished the institution of slavery by the latter part of the 19th century, the slavery laws in the Torah strike a contemporary reader as historical and obsolete. In spite of these sentiments and our pride in the progress of humanity for having formally put an end to slavery, there are very few societies if any, including our own, that have ever been de facto free of the institution of slavery.

Today, slavery is less visible than before, but perhaps more insidious. The most prevalent forms of slavery exist in every corner of the earth in everyday and mundane settings. Within meters from our homes and work-places, people are forced into domestic service, prostitution, farm labor, factories, light industry, prisons and mines, to name a few examples. Current world slavery is modestly estimated at more than 27 million people, more than double the number of those who were deported in the 400-year history of the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas.1According to Anti-Slavery International(ASI), one of the world’s oldest human-rights organizations, there are over 200 million people in slavery bonds.

UN agency, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are

215 million children forced to labor.

These are some of the common forms:

Bonded labor–people taken or tricked into taking a loan for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child, then forced to work to repay the debt, sometimes for generations

Early and forced marriage-women and girls are married without choice and are forced into lives of servitude often with physical violence

Forced labor–illegal recruitment of labor by individuals, governments or political parties –under threat of violence or other penalties

Slavery by descent -people either born into a slave class or a ‘group’ that society views as suited to being used as slave labor

Trafficking-transport and/or trade of people –women, children and men –from one area to another for the purpose of forcing them into slavery conditions

Worst forms of child labor-children around the world in work that is harmful to their health and welfare

Compared with historical slavery, in our times –

There is no longer a need for legal ownership; people can be bought, sold and bartered among “owners” who take temporary possession;
People caught up in slavery today can be purchased and sold for as little as $100 (compared to 10 times that much in the 1850s). As a result, people become “disposable;” i.e., easily replaceable;
Slavery cuts across nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, age, class, education-level, and other demographic features;
Slavery’s business side—human trafficking—is a global enterprise that can involve not just criminal gangs, but also corrupt governments, law enforcement, drug dealers, and even families. (from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center)
In his work on biology, politics and ethics, a great philosopher of 5th century BCE Athens, Aristotle justifies slavery on the grounds of nature.

But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule. (See Politics, Book I, Chapters iii-vii and Nicomachean Ethics,Book VII)

Aristotle believes that slavery is natural to the order of humanity. In the

Politics, Aristotle also takes up the comparison between women and slaves. He states that woman is by nature distinct from a slave, and the treatment of women as slaves is characteristic of barbarians (Book I, 1252a34-b6). However, he also writes that the relation of the male to the female is by nature one of superior to inferior, and of ruler to ruled (1254b13-14). Aristotle asserts that the mode of rule that suits a male spouse in relation to his woman spouse is political rule (Politics,I, 1259a39-b1), a form of rule suitable to people who are free and equal. That having been said, Aristotle envisions a natural order of man ruling over woman and master ruling over slave.

Despite liberation movements and our rhetoric about equality, human society in our day is not far removed from Aristotle’s portrayal. In broad terms, men wield political and material power over women, and masters control the lives of people who function as instruments for the satisfaction of the more privileged nations and elites among humanity. Peoples of the southern and eastern hemispheres continue to serve and provide for the interests of the north and west. To a large extent, we are complicit in these structures of exploitation whereby some people live under oppression to earn profits for us.

Concerning slavery, our parasha also distinguishes between men and women. The master’s claim to a woman is not the same as to a male—

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. (Exodus 21:7) Whereas sexual enslavement is one of the most egregious forms of abuse today, the Jewish sages rule that a Hebrew girl sold into slavery by her penniless father is to be freed by her master when she reaches puberty (see Rambam, Laws of Slaves, chapter 1). A slave girl’s consent is required if her master seeks to marry her, or marry her to his son. Her formal status thereby changes to female spouse with the rights to food, clothing, and sexual intimacy. These laws offer some protection to women against the sexual abuses that too often attend excessive gendered power in society.

In a speech she delivered 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio,

Sojourner Truth, a former slave and an inspirational figure in the American emancipation movement speaks of her experience as a slave, and as a woman in her religious framework,

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man -when I could get it -and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?….

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman!

Sojourner Truth expects her religious faith to uphold her ethical views; she advocates an interpretation of her tradition that strives for liberation from the views that enslave blacks and women.

Though much of humanity claims to have broken through the belief that some people are born to serve others—that some people are inherently inferior—we continue to live according to those views. By our affluent lifestyles and our constant search for bargain food, services, and goods, for material indulgence, we behave as though we are entitled to benefit from slavery and the slave- like conditions under which unfortunate women, children, and men throughout the world toil for us. Today, nearly three out of every four slaves are women; half are children.

The Torah recognizes that slavery arises— due to disparities in society and the misfortunes that create desperation and need (see Devarim 15). Similar conditions exist in our global economy, many of them human-made —untenable abuses of human and natural resources, undervaluing vast categories of human effort and services that results in dehumanizing labor and living conditions, indignities, and discrimination. All of this persists in spite of emancipation and the dawn of the era of human rights. In the Torah, slavery persists in spite of the Exodus. Ultimately, leaving Egypt blazes a path away from serving human masters toward serving the divine. Parashat Mishpatim acknowledges the persistent reality of slavery and the constant need to raise our ethical standards, and to practice them. Exodus establishes the vision and purpose to end oppression among people, but it does not wean us from the beliefs, habits, and profits of enslaving one another— this is one of our paramount responsibilities in the exercise of our freedom.

Pirkei Avot- Ethics of our Forebears (6, 2) explains,

Do not call the commandments ‘

Charut’ [engraved into the stone tablets], but rather call the commandments ‘Cheirut’ [freedom], because no one is as free as one who follows the Torah.‛


Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. University of California Press, 1999, p. 9; “UN

Chronicle: Slavery in the Twenty-First Century”, http://www.smf

cdn.com/assets/pubs/un_chronicle.pdf Retrieved 2010-10-3.