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July 29, 2015 / 13 Av, 5775
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Rabbi Lord Sacks: The Hardship Of Freedom


A Hebrew slave is to go free after six years. If the slave has grown so used to his condition that he wishes not to go free, then he is forced to undergo a stigmatizing ceremony, having his ear pierced, which thereafter remains as a visible sign of shame. Every Shabbat, slaves cannot be forced to work. All these stipulations have the effect of turning slavery from a lifelong fate into a temporary condition, and one that is perceived to be a humiliation rather than something written indelibly into the human script.

Why choose this way of doing things? Because people must freely choose to abolish slavery if they are to be free at all. It took the reign of terror after the French Revolution to show how wrong Rousseau was when he wrote in The Social Contract that if necessary people have to be forced to be free. That is a contradiction in terms, and it led, in the title of J. L. Talmon’s great book on the thinking behind the French revolution, to totalitarian democracy.

G-d can change nature, said Maimonides, but He cannot, or chooses not to, change human nature, precisely because Judaism is built on the principle of human freedom. So He could not abolish slavery overnight, but he could change our choice architecture, or in plain words, give us a Nudge, signaling that slavery is wrong but that we must be the ones to abolish it, in our own time, through our own understanding. It took a very long time indeed, and in America, not without a civil war. But it happened.

There are some issues on which G-d gives us a nudge. The rest is up to us.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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One Response to “Rabbi Lord Sacks: The Hardship Of Freedom”

  1. MH says:

    I’m sorry – but while Chumash certainly humanizes to a greater degree than the then ambient treatment of the slave – it does not abolish it; neither it nor similar serf like existences.

    While it is true that in America we needed to fight a civil war over slavery, and lose over 500,000 lives, let us review in a different vein:

    Approximately 3000 years ago we were given the attenuated form of slavery miSinai. In any given country in which slavery of some sort might be deemed legal, a practising orthodox Jew, in perfect concert with The Torah, can keep a slave – – especially if he is “Caanani”. 3000 years later, slavery is still legal in Torah – though attenuated.

    In the USA, while from 1650 to 1863 slavery was legal – for a little over 200 years of post Columbian history; that was now over 150 years ago. Already, One Third of Americas history has been spent under the umbrella of banned slavery. While slavery remains perfectly legal in Torah. It took us 200 years – but we learned. It has taken 3000 years, and Torah has still not learned.

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