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    Human dignity & Mishpatim

    Mishpatim doesn’t come where it does in the Book of Exodus just by chance. It follows the Ten Commandments which lay down the basic rules of human dignity.

    Not long before this, there is a series of chapters about the era of Egyptian bondage, describing the experiences of the Children of Israel when Egypt tried to deny them their human rights as Children of the Creator.

    The enslavement showed the spirit of the Israelite people, who had decided spontaneously that no taskmaster was going to turn them into unthinking clones of a callous regime.

    Having lived through that period, Israel was ready for its protest against human debasement to be turned into a universal code, much of which can be regarded as an unapologetic Jewish response to the teaching of Aristotle that in the nature of things the world was divided into those who were meant to be masters and those who were meant to be slaves.

    The Torah says that even those who thought they were masters were answerable to a higher Master, and even those who thought they were slaves were only bondmen, who, deprived economically, sold themselves for a set period and were thereafter entitled to their freedom.

    The Talmud championed the rights of the bondmen, saying that they had to be treated like their masters – “If you eat white bread they must not be given black, if you drink wine they must not be given water, and if you sleep on a feather bed they must not lie down on straw”. When a bondman’s time of release arrived he had to be loaded with farewell gifts.

    In 19th century America Rabbi Morris Raphall aroused great controversy when he argued that the Bible endorsed slavery, whilst actually the Biblical type of slavery was not the abject chattel-like existence of the American coloured slaves.

    In a sense “slavery” was entirely the wrong word to use to describe the Biblical bondman.

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