Former Chief Rabbi Lord SacksRabbi Dr. Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth 199-2013 and a member of the House of Lords since 2009. He has authored many books on Judaic thought, appears regularly in the British media and has kindly allowed us to post his essay on the Sabbath Torah reading each week as well as other sermons.
I want, in this study, to look at one of Judaism’s most distinctive and least understood characteristics – the chronological imagination.
The modern world was shaped by four revolutions: the English, the American, the French and the Russian. Two – the English and American – were inspired by the Hebrew Bible which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because of the Reformation and the invention of printing, became widely available for the first time. The French and Russian revolutions, by contrast, were inspired by philosophy: the French by the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Russian by the writings of Karl Marx.
Their histories are markedly different. In England and America, revolution brought war, but led to a gradual growth of civil liberties, human rights, representative government and eventually democracy.
The French and Russian revolutions began with dreams of utopia and ended in a nightmare of hell. Both gave rise to terror and bloodshed and the repression of human rights.
What is the difference between philosophy and the political vision at the heart of Tenakh? The answer lies in their different understandings of time.
The sedra of Behar sets out a revolutionary template for a society of justice, freedom and human dignity. At its core is the idea of the Jubilee, whose words (“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) are engraved on one of the great symbols of freedom, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. One of its provisions is the release of slaves:
If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, do not work him like a slave. He shall be with you like an employee or a resident. He shall serve you only until the jubilee year and then he and his children shall be free to leave you and return to their family and to the hereditary land of their ancestors. For they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. Do not subjugate them through hard labour – you shall fear your G-d . . . For the children of Israel are servants to Me: they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt – I am the Lord your G-d.
The terms of the passage are clear. Slavery is wrong. It is an assault on the human condition. To be “in the image of G-d” is to be summoned to a life of freedom. The very idea of the sovereignty of G-d means that He alone has claim to the service of mankind. Those who are G-d’s servants may not be slaves to anyone else.
At this distance of time it is hard to recapture the radicalism of this idea, overturning as it did the very foundations of religion in ancient times. The early civilizations – Mesopotamia, Egypt – were based on hierarchies of power which were seen to inhere in the very nature of the cosmos. Just as there were (so it was believed) ranks and gradations among the heavenly bodies, so there were on earth. The great religious rituals and monuments were designed to mirror and endorse these hierarchies.
In this respect Karl Marx was right. Religion in antiquity was the robe of sanctity concealing the naked brutality of power. It canonized the status quo.
At the heart of Israel was an idea almost unthinkable to the ancient mind: that G-d intervenes in history to liberate slaves – that the supreme Power is on the side of the powerless. It is no accident that Israel was born as a nation under conditions of slavery. It has carried throughout history the memory of those years – the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of servitude – because the people of Israel serves as an eternal reminder to itself and the world of the moral necessity of liberty and the vigilance needed to protect it. The free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings.
Yet the Torah does not abolish slavery. That is the paradox at the heart of Behar. To be sure it was limited and humanized. Every seventh day, slaves were granted rest and a taste of freedom. In the seventh year Israelite slaves were set free. If they chose otherwise they were released in the Jubilee year. During their years of service they were to be treated like employees. They were not to be subjected to back-breaking or spirit-crushing labour. Everything dehumanizing about slavery was forbidden. Yet slavery itself was not banned. Why not? If it was wrong, it should have been annulled. Why did the Torah allow a fundamentally flawed institution to continue?
It was Moses Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed who explained the need for time in social transformation. All processes in nature, he argued, are gradual. The foetus develops slowly in the womb. Stage by stage a child becomes mature. And what applies to individuals applies to nations and civilizations:
"It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is therefore, according to the nature of man, impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed."
Accordingly, G-d did not ask of the Israelites that they suddenly abandon everything they had become used to in Egypt. “G-d refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying.” But surely G-d can do anything, including changing human nature. Why then did He not simply transform the Israelites, making them capable immediately of the highest virtue? Maimonides’ answer is simple:
"I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for G-d to change the nature of every individual person. On the contrary, it is possible and it is in His power . . . but it has never been His will to do it, and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change the nature of any person, the mission of the prophets and the giving of the Torah would have been superfluous".
In miracles, G-d changes nature but never human nature. Were He to do so, the entire project of the Torah – the free worship of free human beings – would have been rendered null and void. There is no greatness in programming a million computers to obey instructions. G-d’s greatness lay in taking the risk of creating a being, homo sapiens, capable of choice and responsibility – of obeying G-d freely.
G-d wanted mankind to abolish slavery but by their own choice, and that takes time. Ancient economies were dependent on slavery. The particular form dealt with in Behar (slavery through poverty) was the functional equivalent of what is today called “workfare”, i.e. welfare benefit in return for work.
Slavery as such was not abolished in Britain and America until the nineteenth century, and in America not without a civil war. The challenge to which Torah legislation was an answer is: how can one create a social structure in which, of their own accord, people will eventually come to see slavery as wrong and freely choose to abandon it?
The answer lay in a single deft stroke: to change slavery from an ontological condition (“what am I?”) to a temporary circumstance. No Israelite was allowed to be or see himself as a slave. He or she might be reduced to slavery for a period of time, but this was a passing plight, not an identity. Compare the account given by Aristotle:
"By analogy, must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast . . . these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I have mentioned. For a man who is able to belong to another person is by nature a slave . . . "(Politics 1.5)
For Aristotle, slavery is an ontological condition, a fact of birth. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled. This is precisely the worldview to which Torah is opposed. The entire complex of biblical legislation is designed to ensure that neither the slave nor his owner should ever see slavery as a permanent condition. A slave should be treated “like an employee or a resident,” in other words, with the respect due to a free human being. In this way the Torah ensured that, although slavery could not be abolished overnight, it would eventually be.
And so it happened.
There are profound differences between philosophy and Judaism, and one lies in their respective understandings of time.
For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless (or for Hegel and Marx, about “historical inevitability”). Judaism is about truths (like human freedom) that are realised in and through time.
That is the difference between what I call the logical and chronological imaginations. The logical imagination yields truth as system. The chronological imagination yields truth as story (a story is a sequence of events extended through time).
Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail – because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy is incapable of understanding the human dimension of time. The inevitable result is that (in Rousseau’s famous phrase) they “force men to be free” – a contradiction in terms, and the reality of life under Soviet Communism.
Revolutions based on Tenakh succeed, because they go with the grain of human nature, recognizing that it takes time for people to change.
The Torah did not abolish slavery but it set in motion a process that would lead people to come of their own accord to the conclusion that it was wrong. How it did so is one of the wonders of history.