Q. Some of the institutions described in Scripture don’t seem very ethical. For instance, we find that slavery is condoned. Yet your column considers the law of Torah the foremost source of ethical guidance!
A. There is indeed a certain paradox between the ethical values we find emphasized in Scripture and between some of the practices and institutions that are regulated and accepted by the law. In order to understand this paradox, we have to deepen our understanding of how the Torah is meant to lead mankind to an ideal human society.
The Torah does not dictate exactly how our society should function. The object of the law is not that human beings should be robots, and all of their actions inflexibly established by Divine decree. Rather, the Torah gives specific laws which provide a basic level of ethical behavior; together with exalted values which guide us in using our own conscience and ethical judgment to build on these values and move mankind forward to the Divine ideal.
One source for these ideals is the stories and exhortations of the Torah. For example, the idea of human brotherhood and equality is learned from the creation story. The Talmud states that even though God wanted the world to be filled with many people, He began the human race with a single individual to teach us that all are brothers, and that no one can boast that his lineage is more elevated than anyone else’s since we all have the same father — Adam and afterwards Noah.
Another way we can discern the Divine ideals is from the laws themselves. Beyond the specific content of the laws, each law has a profound inner message. The great medieval rabbi Nachmanides writes in his commentary on the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:18): “It is impossible to mention in the Torah every detail of a person’s conduct with his neighbors and friends, all of his business dealings and the policies of towns and countries, but after it mentioned many [individual laws] . . . it went back to state generally that we should do the right and the good in everything.”
So the Torah gives us specific practices to create a foundation and lofty ideals to aspire to. The next thing we need to understand is how the human race is meant to move forward towards these ideals. The answer is that the process is not a revolutionary one, in which our conceptions and institutions are violently overthrown. Rather, it is through an educational vision that provides a local road map to tell us how to behave properly within current institutions, as well as a regional map that teaches us how to ultimately get on to the high road to universal human flourishing.
Let’s apply these concepts to the example you mention: slavery. At the time the Torah was given slavery was a universal as well as a vital economic institution. Since the educational vision of the Torah is not a revolutionary one, the first step in creating an ethical society is to establish basic ethical standards which are appropriate for the economic institutions which exist at any given time. This is done through the many commandments to ameliorate the status of the slave. Here are some examples: the commandment to give the slave Shabbat rest, through a sense of identification with his plight (Deuteronomy 5:13-14); the requirement to free slaves if they are subject to physical abuse (Exodus 21:26-27); the requirement to take care of their basic needs (Leviticus 25:37).
At the same time, the Torah contains passages which highlight the human cost of the institution of slavery per se, thus creating the impetus to create a more humane society in the future, a society in which this institution will no longer have a place.
So we see that the Torah does acknowledge the practical state of the human race, including the state that applied at the time the Torah was given. The laws of the Torah contain an outer expression which enables its followers to maintain an ethical lifestyle according to the material circumstances which exist at any given time, as well as an inner message of human brotherhood which enables the human race to transcend in a historical way those social institutions, such as slavery, which are ultimately an obstacle towards achieving this desired state.
THE IDEA OF PROGRESS IN THE TORAH
At the Passover Seder we state that if God had not taken us out of the land of Egypt, then to this very day the children of Israel would be enslaved to Pharaoh. This is a very surprising statement — after all, over a period of thousands of years nations rise and fall, and enslaved nations free themselves, in perfectly natural processes. Certainly we do not know today of any race which has been continuously enslaved for three thousand years!
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook explained this passage by stating that the very idea of historical progress and of a movement towards liberation was inculcated in the human race as a result of the Exodus. The dominant worldview in the ancient world was not one of progress towards a great redemption but rather of a cyclical, static or even declining world. The liberation of the Jewish people, and the subsequent giving of the Torah, created a mighty example for all people that human freedom is attainable and worth striving for. This was an important factor in creating the dynamism and the progressive factor in human history. And indeed we see that the Exodus is a dominant liberation motif in progressive discourse to this very day.