Rabbis Have Final Say On Biblical Ethics
Shabbat Behar-Behukotai

Rabbis Have Final Say On Biblical Ethics

It is well known that biblical ethics constitute an advance over the cultural and moral standards of the nations surrounding the Jewish people in antiquity. Rather than breaking radically with the surrounding cultures, the Bible often utilizes existing ancient gentile cultural and social institutions, transforming them into higher ethical forms for Jews to adopt. We find a prime example of this transformation in Behar regarding the institution of slavery.

The Bible permits slavery but puts humanizing limits on how a Jewish master can treat his slave. He may not work him “with rigor” [Leviticus 25:43], which Talmudic tradition understood as prohibiting the master from giving a slave back-breaking tasks or purposeless work just to lord his authority over the slave. Nor could a master give his slave a work assignment without putting a reasonable time limit on it. And, of course, the Bible famously demands that slaves be freed in the seventh year, after six years of servitude. No one was enslaved for life, and Jews were commanded to proclaim “freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants” every 50 years in the Jubilee year [Lev. 25:10]. In fact, the biblical definition of slavery is closer to indentured servitude than to how slavery is commonly understood.

Yet the picture is not so simple, since the Bible explicitly confines these ethical constraints to Jewish servants [Lev. 25:45-46]. According to strict biblical law Jewish masters are allowed to work gentile slaves “with rigor,” without mercy or time-limit, and for life. This disturbed Talmudic authorities and medieval rabbinic authorities, and here we begin to understand an essential characteristic of traditional Judaism. While Jewish ethics may start with the Bible, it doesn’t end with it. It continues with ongoing rabbinic interpretation and reflection. Even the most Orthodox of Jews are not literal fundamentalists but people who follow rabbinic tradition that often departs from the literal meaning of biblical text.

In our case of slavery, rabbinic tradition extended compassion to gentile servants also. Maimonides claims in his comprehensive code of Jewish law, Mishnah Torah, that strict halacha allows a Jew to work his gentile slave mercilessly, yet compassion (hasidut) and wisdom (hochmah) require that a religious Jew refrain from burdening his gentile servant with harsh work and from treating him unjustly. After all, wrote Maimonides, cruelty — the lack of compassion — is found only among “idolaters.” To Maimonides it was inconceivable for a Jew to act cruelly toward any human being, Jew or gentile, since Maimonides insisted that both Jews and gentiles are created by God. Nachmanides, Maimonides’ near-contemporary biblical commentator and another towering rabbinic authority, also understood that hewing to the letter of the law only can produce an immoral and irreligious person, “a scoundrel within the bounds of Torah law.”

So here we have uncovered four critical truths of morally healthy Judaism: Biblical law is only the floor on which the rabbis felt obligated to build a more robust and humane ethic. Second, chesed (compassion) is an indispensable element of Jewish ethics. Without compassion, we are little better than circumcised pagans. Third, Torah and halacha are more than the skillful juggling of texts. Keen “emotional intelligence” must supplement analytic intelligence to understand what the Torah and God require of us. This is one of the reasons we go to humane rabbis and not computers or cold mathematicians for wisdom about human matters.

Finally, there is no essential difference in value between Jewish lives and gentile lives. We are all the same in biology and intrinsic worth, all created in the Divine Image, as Maimonides insisted when he quoted Job: “Did not God make me and the gentile servant in the same womb?”

Beyond the minutiae of specific halachot, the Torah demands that sincere Jews do “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” [Deuteronomy 6:18]. Every legal system, no matter how comprehensive and well-meaning, can ultimately produce exceptions that are cruel and unethical. In supplementing the biblical law of slavery with a humane approach to non-Jewish servants, the rabbis fulfilled the ever-present religious imperative for us to be morally sensitive and “do what is right and good” to all God’s creatures. When we do so, we are also good and right in the eyes of our fellow human beings, whether Jew or gentile, man or woman, rich or poor. 

Rabbi Eugene Korn, a resident of Jerusalem, helped found the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (in Israel), where he was the academic director for 10 years.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:44 p.m.

Torah: Lev. 25:1-27:34

Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Havdalah: 8:45 p.m.

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