Jews as slave owners?

The title of this post makes me cringe as I'm assuming it does to any decent person who sees it.
How can we reconcile the existence of slavery in the Torah and its normative regulation in Halacha with what is in our days a fundamental universal truth - the abhorrence of slavery in any form?
In addition, how can we as Orthodox Jews understand slavery as part of the eternal Torah which we believe is relevant to our lives in every generation? are we to sympathize with slave ownership?
Two classic approaches to this challenge are:

1. Slavery in the Torah has nothing to do with slavery as we know it from history. This approach emphasizes those Halachot that set Torah's slavery as fundamentally different. One of the more famous of these is pointing out that one only becomes a slave by either selling themselves or by being sold by the court after stealing and not being able to pay back. Other examples are that one is forbidden to task their slave with denigrating work, that a slave has the right to sue his master if physically harmed, that - at most - a person could be a slave for 7 years and other such examples. It is more of a semantic confusion than a moral contradiction: what the Torah calls 'slave', we today call 'employee', 'made' or 'cleaning lady' or 'nanny'.
Though this definitely depicts a significantly milder form of slavery than that we are familiar with from history, it tends to leave out the less "PC" aspects of slavery in Halacha; that one may forcibly sell his - Jewish - daughter as a slave if she is of a certain age, that a non Jew can be taken as a slave by force without stealing or selling themselves, that he can be forced to mate and then have his children taken from him and sold, that it is forbidden to release him from slavery, that one is allowed to assign him fruitless and humiliating work, that it is permissible to beat ones slave as long as no irreversible damage is done, etc...
To call this approach apologetic would be an understatement.

2. Slavery exists even if we make believe it doesn't. Not necessarily the same crude physical ownership of one man over another, but just as real an exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the CEO who exploits the manpower worker who cannot make ends meet, has no health insurance or benefits of any kind, who can be fired at a moments notice with no supports or assistance once his exploitation is complete. Better to regulate such un-ideal societal dynamics, thus minimizing the exploitation, than ignoring them and telling ourselves that "slavery is a thing of the past and of no concern to us as modern people". Having slavery as a fixed element in Torah and Halacha reminds us that severe exploitation will always be among us and we must recognize it and try to regulate and minimize it. This approach emphasizes the degree to which following the Halachot of slavery would have contained the more crude and cruel elements of slavery and even progress certain barbaric tendencies among individuals or groups who are more prone to being exploited to such degrees. (i.e. a Jewish slave who sells himself can support his family without resorting to crime, one sold by the court for theft can undergo rehabilitation - leading a productive and disciplined lifestyle, the non Jewish slave can become refined through the example of Jewish morality and Jewish observance, which he becomes obligated by, etc...)
through a disciplined lifestyle and moral example of an 'enlightened' master)
An interesting and complex approach which carries with it a strong moral call and statement to every generation but also includes a disturbing patronizing attitude as well (to put it mildly...).

A third approach, which I would like to suggest is this:
When discussing the obligation to annihilate Amalek and the moral dilemma this Mitzvah poses, Rav Kook states the following:
"The prevention of possibility is to us a testimony of Hashem's will and prevention of will has many forms, sometimes a practical prevention like the fear of the ruling nations and sometimes a spiritual prevention. When such preventions exist we are pleased, as we recognize that such is the Will of the divine providence in such times".
Rav Kook says something tremendously daring - it is no coincidence that in a generation where the idea of genocide is deplorable we happen to not know who Amalek is, thus preventing us from fulfilling the Mitzvah, even if we wanted to. Through the moral development of human kind and the 'mixing of the nations' which has erased the existence of an identifiable Amalek nation, the application of this Mitzvah and all the Halachot that go with it is no longer an active part of our observance, nor do we yearn for its renewal.
We accept the impossibility of this Mitzvah's observance as a good sign about the state of humankind and The Jewish People. Through history and circumstance, Hashem has turned the Mitzvah of annihilating Amalek from a practical, physical one to a spiritual and symbolic one.  
This idea has far reaching implications with the obvious questions being - how and who can decide that the physical and/or spiritual inability to observe something translates into testimony that it is no longer divinely desired and that we should be happy about it? what other Mitzvot could you apply this idea to (Animal sacrifices? Mamzerim? not saving a non Jew on Shabbat? women's role in Jewish society?)
These are excellent questions for a different time but I would suggest applying it, in the meantime, to slavery in the Torah:
Yes, the laws of slavery were tremendously advanced in comparison to slavery in the ancient - and even - modern world and yes, exploitation still exists (though to far, far lesser degrees) and yes, the regulation of slavery with normative guidelines and restrictions served as a refining element to both master and even slave, considering the alternatives.
But even so, we believe that the abolishment of slavery in humankind, especially in Western society, is divinely inspired, divinely directed and part of the moral advancement of the world towards a more moral, more ideal, more holly world. The - divinely directed - impracticality of these Mitzvot is cause for tremendous optimism. So, what are we to do with all of the Psukim, Midrashei Halacha and Halchot about slavery? am I saying - Heaven forbid - that 'they aren't relevant any more'? to that I would say:
1. Talmud Torah is always relevant
2. No guarantees exist that humankind will not morally regress again (70 years ago slavery of the Jewish People would have been a blessing...)
3. Traces of slavery still exist in the world as well as shadows of it in our own society
4. There is an entire world of Chassidish and Kabalistic literature that learn from these Psukim and Halachot guidelines and directives for the inner 'slave' and 'master'
I believe this last approach holds within it tremendous power, combining a traditional approach to Torah and Mitzvot with the most refined moral sensitivities and high level of sophistication. It is definitely the one I will be thinking about this coming Shabbat when reading the laws of slaves and slavery.




Yitro vs. John Kerry, Advice vs. "Advice"

Another Parsha guest post on ajewishisrael.com 
Be advised that my guest posts on this website are more politically explicit than my usual writing as that is the aim of the site. 


Remembering Ariel Sharon

Ever since I heard about Ariel Sharon's worsening condition last week, I've been contemplating what to think and feel.
On the one hand - all of the military victories he lead and orchestrated, the terrorists he killed, attacks he prevented, the dozens of Jewish settlements he was instrumental in establishing and growing, the agricultural development he oversaw and much, much more.
On the other hand - the deception of his voters and his party members, the destruction of Jewish towns, homes and families and the "hit" to Israeli deterrence.
That have been said, the moment I heard the news of his death, my dilemma was immediately resolved because I realized the following:
Which of Ariel Sharon's actions over his lifetime of public service will last and resonate stronger, have a bigger impact on the future of the Jewish State and the Jewish people? the brilliant victories he led and orchestrated which were instrumental in securing a State of Israel to begin with, the establishment of dozens of settlements that created a new reality in Judeah and Samariah and a new relationship between The State and The Land of Israel, or the outcomes of the "disengagement" - whatever they may be? (Would the "Palestinians" hate us less, try to kill us less? not try to fire as many rockets as possible? would the Hamas and other Islamists not push their way to power?)
Sharon will be remembered as what he was - a person whose entire life was devoted to the service of Am Yisrael, to safeguarding Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael; how many of us can say the same? His contributions to the establishment and success of The State of Israel are already woven into the fabric of its existence; how many people have such merit?  What he has built - cannot and will not be destroyed, what he destroyed - can and will, at one point or another, be rebuilt (see *** below).
May his memory be blessed among the many גיבורים (heroes) of Am Yisrael. Specifically Yoav Ben Tzruya and Bar Kochva come to mind, for some reason...

Wearing Tfilin during 6 day war
Laying the corner stone for Elon Moreh
With flag and Sefarim
At The Kotel

(***To be clear - I was opposed to the disengagement for many reasons and think that even if I was for it, the cruel way in which it was decided and carried out would have delegitimized it anyway, but once it has already happened I am humble enough to say that such an event - after happening - is of historical proportions and significance and, as such, will need dozens of years to truly be understood with all of its ramifications- for good or bad).



High Fashion, Auto Anti-Zionism and The Plague of Darkness

My second guest blog on AJewishIsrael.com can be seen here.
My guest blogs will have a more overt political message to them as the site is of a political nature.


Simon & Garfunkel, Jesus and Sex - a surprising conversation with my 8 year old son

On a drive back from Buffalo to Toronto last week, with only myself and my 8 year old in the car, I put on a "Simon and Garfunkel" disc as part of his 'music appreciation education'. (He can already identify Blues as a genre, Beetles, Queen, some U2 and 'Stairway to Heaven'. I thought it was time he become familiar with the great music of two nice Jewish boys, named Simon and Art).  
The first song on this timeless collection was "Mrs, Robinson".
For those not familiar with this rock classic (shame on you!) the opening lyrics are:
"And here's to you Mrs. Robinson;Jesus loves you more than you will know (wo wo wo)".
Upon hearing this line, the following quite long and extremely important conversation ensued between my son and me:

Matanel: "Abba, who's Jesus?"
Me: "He was a Jewish guy who lived a very long time ago. Do you remember that we learnt about Avaraham Avinu and how when he was a kid everyone believed that statues had powers and that they were gods? well Christians think that Jesus, who was a man, had powers and was a God. What do you think, does that make sense?"
Matanel: "No, not really"
Me: "Remember the story of how Avraham smashed all the statues and put the stick in the hands of the big statue and told his father that the big statue did it and that his father got angry because the statue is just a statue? what did Avraham answer him?"
Matanel: "That if the statue can't smash the other statues how can you believe he is God".
Me: "That's right. So it's the same thing with Jesus. Just like the statue was made by someone else and is just a statue so he can't be God, also man was made from something and came from his parents and can't be God"
Matanel (laughing): "That makes sense".
Me: "Think about it. If he's a 'man' then he's a 'man' and if he's 'God' - then he's 'God'. Saying 'man' is 'God' would be like saying a dog is a fish (Matanel laughing hysterically). If I tell you that this dog is a fish, that means that either it's not a fish or it's not a dog. It can't be both, can it?"
Matanel: "Well, it can be both if you're speaking in both languages..." (the Hebrew word דג, which means fish sounds exactly like the English word dog)
Me (laughing): "Well, I guess, but you know what I mean. Let's say I say a dog is a cat - it's either a cat that I'm calling a dog, or a dog that I'm calling a cat. IT can't be both, right?"
Matanel: "Well, what if a dog and cat get married, wouldn't their baby be both?"
Me: "Wow, good question. From what I know, when 2 animals from different species have babies, the babies can't survive and they die".
Matanel: "Ah. Abba - do animals get married?"
Me: "Not really".
Matanel: "So how do they have kids?"
Me: "What do you mean?"
Matanel: "I have a different question. When people tell me I got my green eyes from you and Savta, or that I 'got my height from my uncles', how did I 'get them' from you?"
Me: "Do you know how you can save letters and pictures on the computer at home?" 
Matanel: "You mean it's saved in the memory?"
Me: "Yes, exactly. So there's something in our bodies called 'cells'..."
Matanel: "Abba, I know what cells are!"
Me: "Oh, OK. Sorry. Well, cells have in them something called DNA that remembers all the things about our bodies - our height, the color of our eyes and hair and a lot, a lot of other things...
Matanel: "So I have your DNA and that's why I'm like you?"
Me: "Yes but you also have Ema's DNA"
Matanel: "Because I was in her Tummy?"
Me: "Ya, kind of"
Matanel: "But how did I get your DNA?"
Me: "Well, just like you can send someone an e-mail with letters and pictures that are kept in the memory of your computer, I sent my DNA, that has all the information about my body, into Ema's tummy"
Matanel: "How did you send it to her? I mean, how did she get it from you? is it because you got married?"
Me: "Ah, I understand your question now. So no, not exactly because we got married. Think about it - you weren't born right after Ema and I got married, right? only seven years later"
Matanel: "Ya. So how did you send your DNA to Ema?" 
Me: "You know how when you see a man and a women kissing and you don't like looking because it's very private?
Matanel (laughing) :"Ya"
Me: "So, there is something else that Abbas and Emas do and that's how I send my DNA to Ema. It's not from kissing - if someone ever tells you it's from kissing, they don't know what they're talking about - but it's from something like kissing that Emas and Abbas do but it's more than kissing. It's more special and more private than kissing. It's like kissing, but more."
Matanel: (says nothing. Seems to be thinking about this)
Me: "Do you want to hear more about this now or continue talking about it at a different time when you feel ready?"
Matanel: "Let's continue a different time"
Me: "OK. I really like talking to you about these things. Let me know whenever you want to continue talking about it". 
Matanel: "OK. Me too. Can I play on your phone now?"
Me: "Sure". 

This Shabbat afternoong, Matanel asked me "if we could continue the DNA conversation". I said I'd love to but we should wait until we can speak about it in quiet, without his younger brothers around to bother us.
Pointers to self for the continued conversation:
1. My kid is awesome. Thank you Hahsem for granting me such a special boy!
2. Make sure to continue letting him lead the conversation. Make sure I'm giving him the information he's asking about and not giving him information he's not actually asking about or ready for. There's plenty of time. 
3. Don't make a big deal out of either topic (God or Sex). He should continue to feel it is just like any other area in life, not something to get super excited, anxious or embarrassed about. 
4. What Simon and Garfunkel song should I have him listen to next...?