It is because we were slaves in Egypt that the Jewish modality of slavery is so unique.
Two thousand years ago, slavery did not have the same intonation as today's post Civil War America. People would become slaves as means of support. For many, being a slave in a Jew's home offered them a higher standard of living.
Jewish owned slaves were more like indentured servants. All of their needs were taken care of. In addition, slaves were treated like members of the family. A master could not assault a slave. Sexual harassment of female slaves was strictly forbidden.
There were preconditions upon which the slave had to agree. Slaves were prohibited from transgressing all 365 Torah prohibitions. It was incumbent upon them to fulfill all mitzvahs which had no time element. In the advent of emancipation, the slave became Jewish, immediately. A slave that did not agree to these conditons was let go.
In ancient times slaves were a “normal” part of live. All ancient societies kept slaves including Jews in ancient Israel. A person could become a slave in various ways: enemy captives in armed conflicts were usually sold into slavery but also Jews could become slaves, usually as a form of payment for debt. The unique feature is that the Hebrew Bible specifies quite detailed the rights of slaves (Lev 25:39-43, Lev 25:45-46). Hebrew slaves for instance had to be released after seven years, all non-Jewish (male) slaves be circumcised and subject to all of the prohibitions in the Torah and most of the positive commandments (with few exceptions). Sexual exploitation of slaves was prohibited, if a slave owner was attracted to a female slave he had to free her and marry her. Fugitive slaves were protected and were not to be handed over to their previous masters if the reason for escape was mistreatment; physical mistreatment of a slave resulting in permanent physical damage resulted in his or her release from bondage. It is obviously hard to say how much of these ancient laws were descriptive or aspirational but the fact that they exist at all is remarkable.
In our time and age slavery or any kind of bondage is deeply unethical. But one should judge ancient societies within their own time and age. In ancient societies slavery was a normal part of the economy as much as minimum-wage jobs are basis for much of the US economy today.
The Hebrew Bible based on the historical experience of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt extended a far-reaching protection of slaves.
In regards to Jewish slave ownership in the United States: research has shown that only approximately 1.25% of slave owners in the South were Jewish. Their treatment of slaves was not significantly different from that of their neighbors. The anti-slavery movement on the other hand had a significant number of Jews among their ranks.
If you are interested in that aspect, there are a number of scholarly articles written on the subject.
By “Jewish ownership of slaves,” do you mean the slaves held by ancient Israelites as referenced in the Torah? Or are you asking about modern instances of Jews owning slaves, for example in the United States before the Civil War?
If the former, please refer to my colleague Rabbi Finman’s answer.
If the latter, well, it doesn’t reconcile very nicely, does it?
I am not a historian, and I have no special knowledge of the experience of Jewish-owned slaves in the United States. We know that slave owners varied widely in how they treated their slaves. We might hope that Jewish slave owners, under the influence of our tradition, would be among the more generous and compassionate of these. It seems likely, however, that Jewish slave owners reflected the whole range of possibilities in how they treated their slaves. And in any case, at its foundation, slave ownership doesn’t seem consistent with Jewish values.
Of course, slave ownership doesn’t seem consistent with Christian values, either. And then there’s the fact that prior to Emancipation, some free African Americans owned slaves. Reconcile that.
For better and for worse, human beings of every religious affiliation are capable of far more and far less than one could ever justify or explain, morally or rationally.
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