Lecture #14b: Letter 89 - continued

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot


Lecture #14b:

Letters of Rav Kook – Letter 89-continued



C: Natural Slavery and Legal Slavery


Know also that slavery, as with all the moral, upstanding ways of God “in which the righteous walk and the evil stumble,”[1] never in itself caused any fault or error. Slavery is a natural law amongst the human race. Indeed, there is no difference between legal slavery and natural slavery.[2] On the contrary, legal slavery based on the Torah’s license repairs certain flaws that can be anticipated in natural slavery.


For example, the reality of rich and poor, weak and strong is inevitable. If so, those who have acquired great wealth lawfully hire poor workers to work for them. These employees become their natural slaves due to social compulsion. For example, coal miners, who are voluntarily employed, are in effect slaves to their employers. It is certainly the lot of some people to be of lower class. If not for the wickedness that so controls the heart of man, to the point that it tramples justice, the situation of slaves would be better if they were actually owned. For example, we now need moral inspiration to be concerned about the material and moral lives of workers, while the rich, with their shuttered hearts, scoff at all morals and ethics. It would be better for him if the mines lacked air and light, even if this shortens the lifespan of tens of thousands of men, many of whom become critically ill, as long as they need not spend tens of thousands of dollars to improve conditions in the mine. If a mineshaft occasionally collapses burying workers alive, they do not even notice, for they will find other workers to hire. If these people were owned by the master by legal slavery, he would worry about them as he worries about his wealth, “since it was his money.” Then these poor workers would indeed be happier and could look forward to a better future.[3]


Thus, our holy Torah follows its way of uplifting man’s heart, bringing it closer to the ways of the Master of all things, blessed be He. Therefore, as long as natural slavery is necessary in human society, “I have created the evil inclination and I have created the Torah as its antidote” – legal slavery “perfumes” it and makes it good.[4] Indeed, these influences would have continued to operate, had our sins and the sins of our fathers not caused the light of the Torah to cease influencing us and the entire world for this lengthy time. From the day that the Temple was destroyed and we were scattered among the nations, the curse of each day is greater than the one before; the darkness of the Middle Ages rose up precisely then, corrupting the true goal of the path of life and turning slavery into a monster. Instead of fulfilling its aim of protecting the lower classes from the evil and strong by benefiting them with the security of possession,[5] in the present situation, the value of slavery is outweighed by its loss. Humanity has seen fit to abolish legal slavery, despite the fact that this will not eliminate natural slavery and we have no power to prevent the damage that befalls the enslaved masses by abolishing legal slavery.[6] This remedy must be hidden in the Torah until the enlightened time when Torah proceeds from Tzion, “And ten men from all of the languages of the nations will grab hold of the corner of [the garment] of one Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”[7]


D. The Slavery of Canaan – Slavery as a National Characteristic


All of human society will then recognize that after the heart is repaired to be a heart of flesh, full of uprightness, mercy, kindness, and compassion, it is appropriate and right that the lower classes of people should all be under the protection of the higher classes, the righteous and wise, who will concern themselves with them as one is concerned with his own possessions – and this will be the source of their happiness and security. In the opinion of the Master of Knowledge, blessed be He, the social and moral situations are connected. Thus, those who are appropriate to serve as slaves are those whose freedom would naturally bring about evil for them and for the world, as they are naturally inclined towards immoral life and only external pressure can straighten and uplift them. This status is often a result of one’s lineage, for just as good qualities and traits are inherited, so too are lowly traits. Sometimes, a person acquires such a lowly trait that it is passed down for thousands of generations. The influence of ancestors operates due to the physical as well as spiritual connection, and even over a great distance [of time]. Thus, the revelation of the lowliness of Cham led to the fact that his descendants are more appropriate to servitude than to self-governance.  It was the depth of this negative trait that led to the curse,[8] and [made it so that] a blessed person, whose lofty qualities, desire for wisdom, and love of God and His creations are natural, cannot cleave to such a person.[9] In order to attest to the extent of the uprightness that mankind must have as a result of the Torah’s influence, it is forbidden, or at the very not appropriate, to eliminate legal slavery entirely, but rather to appropriately straighten [natural slavery].[10]


            This is the impression that we must find in the law of “a day or two days.”[11] For the premise of all punishments, including the punishment for murder, is the future benefit that results to the world. The punishment must provide future protection, in addition to straightening the heart; thus, it must be limited to the degree of its external protection. For if it will have no effect, it is no longer considered compassion[12] or repair of the world,[13] but rather purely revenge. Thus, since [the slave] is his property, and man guards his property and will surely not quickly allow his slave to be intentionally killed as a result, “he shall not be avenged” – for it is not right to avoid the implication of negation of revenge and the stress of repair and compassion.[14] This is the implication according the Ibn Ezra as well.[15]


            Know well that the statement of our Sages in the Midrash and Aggada[16] regarding Noah’s recognition that mankind requires slaves is, at its root, a recognition of the nature of society and the necessity of slavery, and that it is therefore appropriate that the segment most fitting for the subjugation of servitude [serve as slaves], as a result of its lowliness in morality and wisdom and willingness to subject itself. This is the basis of the negation of the Canaanites’ claim,[17] for the purpose of conquest practiced by all of humanity is to raise the glory of the human spirit. For smaller settlements are more likely to become lowly, and conquest unites them with the large kingdom. This is a step towards the unification of humanity into one family in the End of Days. It is always proper that the settlement from which the greater light and the greater good for perfection of the group emanates should be given honor, and the one who overcomes the other will generally go in the way of the light. This is [similarly] the basis of natural slavery. Thus, the Israelite conquest of the land from the Canaanites is the strongest basis for the aspiration of human progress, for from here emanates the law of “what a slave acquires is acquired by his master.”[18]


E. Abolition of Slavery According to the Torah


From what I have said thus far, you should understand that those who wish to support the desire to abolish slavery in our day based on biblical sources[19] are like astrologers who see, but do not know what they see.[20] There is indeed value to legal slavery, which serves a positive purpose in the world, but in order to achieve its goal, a properly ordered world is necessary. In fact, an echo of those benefits that slavery has, in an unclear fashion, on those who themselves have slaves is witnessed in the fact that they themselves make the claim.[21] But in the absence of proper and strong preparation, it is impossible for the world to be properly influenced by the Torah, with the exception of the Nation of God alone, as we are more prepared internally. Long ago, our Sages declared that Scripture defiles the hands, as the power of defilement is commensurate with belovedness[22] – one who wishes to draw from them practical matters for the general world, which is not prepared for its holiness until this time and until the End of Days, [uses them for defilement].[23]


The following are a number of paragraphs from the next letter, Letter 90, in which Rav Kook clarifies a number of issues regarding slavery in response to R. Seidel’s questions:


In response to your question regarding why the laws of slaves do not apply to the other descendants of Noach besides for Canaan, you did not understand my words properly. I said that there is a natural necessity in the human situation for some people to be slaves; if they are not slaves by law, they will become slaves out of concern for their own wellbeing. Thus, freeing the slaves has not helped humanity at all, aside from the fact that the need for slaves has fallen as mechanization has further developed and man can better rule over the powers of nature. These matters proceed gradually in accordance with the laws of morality, guided by the amazing providence of the Master of all things, blessed be He. Thus, the reason for Canaan’s subjugation is that his descendants posses the lowliness and weakness of spiritual forces that bring about slavery, and that is why, indeed, most slaves have always come from Cham.[24] But any person who becomes a slave as a result of his situation will always be a slave, regardless of whether someone owns him, for “[the needs of] his mouth will be heavy upon him.”[25] And the best way for the lowly to repair their moral ways is to serve as slaves for people of high stature. Thus, Eliezer prided himself, “I am the slave of Avraham.”


And regarding your question of why Canaan was more appropriate than the other sons of Cham [for slavery] – appropriateness for slavery implies lowly character and wide desires, which are not made more gentle even by honor and the like. This power is recognizable with regard to Canaan, as the Torah says, “Do not do like the acts of the land of Canaan.” The Sifra explains that they were more corrupt than all of the other nations in their abominations.[26] Thus, the slavery of Cham was most clear regarding Canaan.[27]


Regarding your statement that a righteous and moral master would concern himself only with his slave’s material, and not spiritual, wellbeing, you are incorrect. Just like a person appropriate for slavery has a particular spiritual level, every complete person is prepared to concern himself with his slave, and when the slave is more perfect in character and mind, he will bring his master greater profit. But too much concern with the spiritual beyond the level of readiness of the soul may give a person wisdom, but will not change his inner essence. In such a case, even the trait of wisdom will serve the slavery, and they will be “slaves riding horses and officers walking likes slaves on the ground,”[28] which is negative.


[1]  From this sentence we can discern that Rav Kook sees slavery as something instrumental – a means and not an end. It can therefore be good or bad, depending on who is implementing it and how it is being implemented.

[2]  “Legal slavery” is slavery that is regulated by law, and in our case, by the law of the Torah. “Natural slavery” is the slavery created as a result of social structures and human and sociological circumstances, as described below.

[3]  Rav Kook cites coal miners as an example. This subject was frequently discussed at the end of the 19th century. In fact, this is a profound understanding of the economic processes that characterize the modern world. There will always be those with capital, and there will always be poorer people who need money. The conditions of today’s wage laborers are no better than that of slaves, and in certain respects is even worse. Establishing slavery through legislation, Rav Kook claims, has two advantages: 1) The fact that the slave is completely owned by his master will to concern for him, as the master does not want the slave to grow weak or to die; 2) the laws of slavery themselves limit the master’s power and prevent him from doing to the slave as he pleases.

[4] In other words, the Torah’s laws apply to the existing human reality (natural slavery) and forge a way to repair and uplift it, as opposed to pure negation of that reality.

[5] That is, protection as if they were actual possessions.

[6] The form of slavery common in the Middle Ages and afterward was not influenced by the Torah or Jewish thought, and was therefore cruel, accomplishing the very opposite of its ideal goal. The modern trend to eliminate legal slavery is therefore correct regarding the form of slavery that was commonly practiced. Natural slavery, however, cannot be nullified by any law (at least presently), and the lower classes are thus left unprotected.

[7] Zecharia 8:23.

[8] The curse is not a punishment, but rather the consequence of the personality and character of Canaan and his descendants.

[9] This discussion also intends to explain why slavery is predominant amongst the descendants of Cham (Africans). R. Zvi Yehuda Kook notes Bereishit Rabba 59: “‘And the slave said to him’ – This is what it says (Hoshea 12): ‘Canaan holds deceitful scales in his hand to oppress the beloved.’ ‘Canaan’ – this is Eliezer. ‘Holds deceitful scales in his hand’ – for he sat and weighed whether his daughter was appropriate or not. ‘To oppress the beloved’ – to oppress the one beloved to God, Yitzchak. He said: Perhaps he will agree and I will give him my daughter. Avraham said to him: You are cursed, and my son is blessed, and a cursed one cannot cleave to a blessed one.”

[10] Otherwise, the lowly among people will be held in the same esteem as those with lofty values and morals, which will bring about the destruction of humanity.

[11] Shemot 21:6: “But if he survives for one day or two days, he shall not be avenged, for he is his property.”

[12] That every sinner must have – in this case, the master.

[13] Deterrence for other slave masters.

[14] This formulation is confusing, and it is difficult to understand exactly what Rav Kook intended. It seems that what he meant was the following: There are two principle components of punishment: 1) Revenge, as the verse says, “He shall surely be avenged” – and the master is therefore killed for killing his slave. 2) Repair of the world – prevention of a similar event in the future. In the case under discussion, there is room to be lenient from both perspectives. On the one hand, opposite the need for justified revenge stands the fact that the slave lived for a day or two; he did not die immediately from the blow, and perhaps the blow was not even sufficient to kill. The fact that the slave was his property further strengthens the assumption that he had no intention to kill him, for a person does not intentionally destroy his property. On the other hand, the purpose of repairing the world is negligible in this case for exactly the same reason – “man guards his property and will surely not quickly allow his slave to be intentionally killed.” Stubborn insistence on revenge in this instance, without taking into account compassion and the importance of repairing the world, would be an overly radical application of the principle of punishment. Thus, “he shall not be avenged.”

[15] The Ibn Ezra writes: “The verse does not write the law regarding a master who kills his slave, for a master customarily has compassion on his property, and he would not kill [his slave], just as he would not kill his animal. And God commanded that when a master punishes his slave, he should not do so in a cruel manner, but should rather let him be when he sees that his soul his departing from his blows. If he does not cease the punishment, he should be killed, for God’s mercies extend to all of His creations, [as we see that] regarding David it says, ‘And you spilled much blood’ (Divrei Ha-yamim I 22:8), and those [he killed] were not of Israel.” It seems to me that Rav Kook wishes to oppose an explanation that would argue that a non-Jew’s blood is not valued; the law here is unique because of the unique bond between a master and his slave, and not for any other reason.

[16] Bereishit Rabba 36: “R. Berakhia said: Noach was greatly pained in the ark because he had no young son to serve him. He said: When I come out, I will beget a young son to serve me. Once Cham performed that deed, he said: You prevented me from begetting a son to serve me; therefore, you will be a slave to your brothers, who serve me.”

[17] R. Zevi Yehuda cites Sanhedrin 91a: “When the people of Africa came to accuse Israel before Alexander the Great, they said to him: The land of Canaan is ours, as it says, ‘The land of Canaan, by its borders’ (Bamidbar 34), and Canaan is our father. Gaviha ben Pesisa said to the Sages: Grant me permission to argue against them before Alexander the Great. If they are victorious, we will say that they were victorious over a lowly individual, and if I am victorious, we will say that the Torah of Moshe was victorious over them. They gave him permission, and he went to argue against them. He said to them: From where do you bring proof? They said to him: From the Torah. He said to them: Then I will also bring proof from the Torah, as it says, “And he said: Cursed is Canaan, a slave of slaves will he be to his brothers.” If a slave acquires possessions, to whom does the slave belong and to whom do the possessions belong? Moreover, it has already been many years since you have served us! Alexander the Great said to them: Answer him! They said to him: Grant us three days. After the given time, they had no response. They immediately fled, and they left their fields and vineyards after planting. And that year was a shemitta year…”

[18] Rav Kook wishes to justify the conquest of the land specifically from the Canaanites from the perspective of God’s master plan for history, as the Canaanites are descendants of Cham (as the Torah stresses in the story of Noach’s curse – “And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw” [Bereishit 9:22]). It is probable that this is the hidden meaning of Avraham Avinu’s dominion over the land of Canaan. In Parashat Noach, the Torah describes how the world was divided among Noach’s descendants – the children of Yefet were awarded Europe (Yavan, Greece, is from Yefet), the children of Shem were given Asia, and the Near East in particular, and the children of Cham were given Africa. The conquest of Canaan until the border of Egypt was an instance of Shem overcoming a region of Cham – the essential purpose of which was bringing Canaan under the influence of the Jewish Nation as part of the ultimate eschatological goal of uniting the world into one family.

            As an aside, I will note that I think that Rav Kook intends here to provide a positive interpretation of imperialism in general, as it is part of the process of raising human culture and the ultimate unification, although by crooked means.

[19] This appears to be a reference to American Protestant movements, which often cited the Bible as an abolitionist source.

[20] In other words, they are correct regarding the situation at the End of Days, when there will no longer be a need for slavery, but they are mistaken regarding the present state, in which slavery still serves a good purpose.

[21] Rav Kook’s meaning is unclear here. Perhaps: Slavery, which has many benefits for the world, is presently causing those of high moral stature to look favorably upon those slaves whose morals have been elevated and upon the desire to eliminate legal slavery.

[22] “The Sadducees say: We curse you, Pharisees, for you say that Scripture defiles the hands and the books of Homer do not! R. Yochanan ben Zakkai said: Is that your only claim against the Pharisees? For they say that the bones of a donkey are pure while the bones of Yochanan the High Priest are impure! They said to him: Their impurity accords with their belovedness, so that a person will not make the bones of his father and mother into a decoration. He said to them: Similarly regarding Scripture – their impurity accords with their belovedness, while the books of Homer, which are not beloved, do not defile the hands” (Yadayim 4:6). The law of defilement regarding Scripture express the need to prevent the spiritual influence of outside forces, and thus the fact that they cannot properly impact the world except through the Jewish People.

[23] This may be the reason for the nullification of slavery in regard to Jews (Vayikra 25:42 – “He should not be sold the sale of a slave), which the world must learn from.

[24] In other words, there is a connection between the existence of a lowly culture and the social need for slavery, as well as a connection between technological advance, which decreases the need for slavery, and cultural progress within the lowly nations.

[25] Mishlei 16:26.

[26] Sifra, Acharei Mot 13: “‘Like the acts of the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you do not do’ – Did they not know that they were coming to the land of Canaan?... Rather, the verse teaches us that the actions of the Canaanites were more corrupt than any other nation, and the place to which Yisrael was proceeding is more corrupt than any other.”

[27] In addition to the story of Cham in Parashat Noach, where Canaan serves as the prototype of the nations that descend from Cham.

[28] Kohelet 10:7.