The Hebrew Who Chooses to Remain in Slavery, 2nd February 2019, Marc Saperstein

Our Torah parashah this morning contains an embarrassment of riches for sermons. Most of it is of a legal character, establishing a basis for many of the fundamental principles of Jewish law, which we discussed in our Torah study group on Thursday evening, I would like to address the verses that we heard read not long ago at the very beginning of parashat Mishpatim.

Some of these verses—those dealing with capital punishment—are not so surprising.” To use the new translation: “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death” (21:12). . . . “When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death” (21:14). But others are more surprising and more disturbing. “He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death” (21:15). “He who insults (or reviles) his father or his mother shall be put to death” (21:17). “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies there and then, he must be avenged. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since the slave is his property” (21:20-21). And so it continues with ever more details about cases that may emerge.

I am going to avoid a discussion of capital punishment in the Bible and the Jewish tradition, and instead focus on the verses near the very beginning of the parashah, dealing with the institution of the eved ivri, the Hebrew slave. Here is what they say (of course, in translation):

“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him to before God [or: before the judges: ha-elohim]. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his [master’s] slave for life” (21:2-6).

It is indeed rather disturbing to be reminded that slavery was an integral component of Israelite experience, not only enslavement to the Egyptians (which came to a decisive end), but enslavement to other Israelites. The conditions are not as oppressive as in other examples of slavery—whether in antiquity or in the United States until 154 years ago, or perhaps even in some parts of the world today—as the slave had the option of restoring his status of freedom after six years of servitude. But this was NOT simply a matter of indentured service. A wife given to the slave during his servitude, and children born to the slave and his wife, could not accompany him to freedom, and the consequence of his choice to remain with his family would be a humiliating ceremony and lifelong enslavement.

Now this legal passage would appear to be as distant from any contemporary relevance as the sacrificial laws so important in the book of Leviticus. It was discussed in the Talmud and codified by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, but it has had no contemporary relevance to Jewish life for the past 2000 years. What I would like to share with you, however, is how a preacher in a very important Jewish community applied this passage in a manner that made it directly relevant to his listeners.

The community was Amsterdam, and the preacher was Saul Levi Morteira, about whom I happen to have written a 580 page book entitled Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira’s Sermons to a Congregation of ‘New Jews’ (HUC Press, 2005). What makes this community so interesting is that it was established ex-nihilo. In 1595, no Jews were living in Amsterdam; some 20 years later it was on its way to becoming one of the most dynamic and flourishing Jewish communities in the world.

A bit of historical background. In the summer of 1492, a large number of Jews from Castile, faced with the deadline set by the Edict of Expulsion and the difficulties of booking passage on ships, headed to the only land destination available: neighboring Portugal, where they soon outnumbered the native Portuguese Jewish community. During the next five years the situation deteriorated drastically, and in early 1497, a new Portuguese king implemented a universal forced conversion to Christianity of all Jews on Portuguese soil—including both the émigrés from Castile and the native Portuguese Jews. From that point on, no Jewish observance was to be permitted, and in the 1530s, a Portuguese Inquisition was established to investigate charges of “judaizing” by the called “New Christians”.

During the 16th century, some of the “New Christians” who wanted to return to Judaism were able to leave for Morocco, for various destinations in Italy, for the Ottoman Empire,. By around 1600, Amsterdam, which had recently achieved its independence from Spanish rule, became a possibility as well: a place where immigrants from Portugal—who by that time were the great-grandchildren of those forcibly converted in 1497 but who had maintained some sense of Jewish identity—could settle in an environment of toleration.

Many of these immigrants were products of the Portuguese Universities, international merchants, respected physicians. They had decided that they wanted to return to Jewish roots and to live openly as Jews. But they knew very little about what this actually meant—other than that Jews did NOT accept the New Testament or the beliefs, traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church. In such an environment, the central texts of post-biblical Judaism had to be published in Spanish or Portuguese translations.

In this context, the leadership of rabbis was crucial. The sermons of Saul Levi Morteira, delivered over a period of some 40 years in Portuguese almost every Shabbat morning, and actually preserved in some 550 of his own hand-written manuscripts in Hebrew transcriptions, were an ongoing programme of adult education, presenting the richness of the Jewish tradition in a sophisticated manner, with literary style, but without assuming much prior knowledge. (Spinoza was born into this community, and he grew up listening to Morteira’s sermons, although eventually he broke with the entire theological world-view that Morteira articulated, leading to his excommunication. But that’s another story.)

Needless to say, Morteira and the lay leaders of the community took considerable pride in what they had accomplished, enabling immigrants from Portugal who had been totally alienated from Jewish life to become a thriving Jewish community. But there was a problem. What about the others? Now that Amsterdam was becoming known as an attractive, tolerant alternative to the Portuguese Inquisition, why did so many “New Christians” still remain in Portugal, alienated from anything Jewish, rather than joining associates or members of their own families in an environment of religious freedom? [We might think of the Jews who emigrated from Russia in the 1990s to make new lives in Israel, wondering about those who have chosen to remain in Russia, where their practice of Judaism is extremely limited.] It is here that our passage comes in: it is part of a sermon delivered in 1624:

Following is the preacher quoting from the biblical phrases and immediately providing his own application: If his master gives him a wife (Exod.21:4) means, if his masters compel him to take another wife and a new religion, as occurred to many of our people (because of our sins), and she bears him sons or daughters who are devoted to that new religion—despite it all they [i.e., the masters] will not extinguish the love [of Judaism] nor will they remove him from the Jewish people, for “even though he sins [by outwardly observing Christian practices], he remains a Jew.” The wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will go forth alone. Since the wife belongs to an alien faith, they are not truly his children. . . . He will go forth alone, and be counted among his people.

Up to this point, Morteira’s message pertains directly to those who are listening to his sermon under conditions of freedom, many of whom left relatives and friends behind. But what of those who remained in the old country? If the slave should say, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” meaning, if this slave should be one of those Jews who sin by … saying that he actually loves the qualities of the people where he has been exiled, loves his Gentile wife, and loves the new religion and his children who are devoted to idolatry, and who will therefore not go forth to freedom, his master, namely, his original Master [God] will bring him to judgment (Exod. 21:6), removing him from the exile to pass sentence against him. . . . He will remove him from his home and bring him before the door or the doorpost, meaning close to the entrance to the door to the Land of Israel, . . . and there He shall pierce his ear with an awl, i.e., an implement of iron, wreaking vengeance against them. He shall serve him forever, cleaving to his master and his accursed wife. . . .

This is why the section begins with the law of the slave: to teach that if they fail to uphold the terms of the covenant, “Ve-Eleh ha-Mishpatim,” these are the judgments which He [God] shall place before him.

Here we see how the preacher has taken a legal passage with absolutely no relevance to the realities of 17th-century Jewish life, and unpacked a message that spoke directly to the concerns of many of his listeners, validating their own decision to leave an environment of religious slavery for one of freedom, and threatening a dire, humiliating punishment for those Portuguese “New Christians” who have chosen to remain in religious bondage. The punishment threatened—at the door of entrance to the Land of Israel—refers to an accounting that will occur at the beginning of the messianic age, when Morteira’s congregants and their offspring will be restored to their homeland, while the “New Christians” remaining in Portugal will be singled out for special chastisement.

I certainly recognize that this passage, with its rather vituperative language about Portuguese Catholic Christianity, is not exactly the most promising for interfaith dialogue. But I believe that it illustrates an important aspect of our homiletical tradition: how passages that may seem devoid of relevance can sometimes be elucidated to address issues that a congregation will find to be close to their hearts.