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Human Dignity and Liberty

Updated on February 3, 2019
David AZ Cohen PhD profile image

David Cohen is an Orthodox Jew, therapist and Bible Scholar, currently retired after 28 years in the civil service.

Hebrew "Servant": Six years- no longer.

The portion of the Bible read in synagogues worldwide last week begins with the text: "Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them. If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing (Exodus 20: 1-2). The Bible, here and in other places, delineates the "boundaries" of having a "Hebrew Servant", including the conditions under which he may be impressed into service and the maximum term of six years servitude.

What happened in Jerusalem?

According to the story in Jeremiah 34: In the seventh month of the reign of Zedekiah (about 582 BCE) the Chaldean armies led by Nebuchadnezzar were in siege around Jerusalem. The practice among the nobility at that time was to impress anyone they wanted into servitude, even without justification and to keep them, basically as slaves, as long as they wanted. The King, possibly in fear of a "slave uprising", possibly in a desperate act of penitence before God, made a "pact" with the people and with God to: 1) Release all Hebrew "slaves"` 2) to never "enslave" anyone ever again. The people, including the priests and the nobility, agreed, and a public ceremony, including a formal oath to God, were held in the Temple. Miraculously, Nebuchadnezzar withdraws his troops, and Jerusalem is, ostensibly, saved. Soon after the former "slave owners" rounded up and re-impressed to servitude everyone who had been freed.

This did not make God happy

This did not make God happy, and He told Jerimiah (34: 13-17):

Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: 'At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee, and hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee'; but your fathers hearkened not unto Me, neither inclined their ear. And ye were now turned, and had done that which is right in Mine eyes, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbour; and ye had made a covenant before Me in the house whereon My name is called; but ye turned and profaned My name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and ye brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids. Therefore thus saith the LORD: Ye have not hearkened unto Me, to proclaim liberty, every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbour; behold, I proclaim for you a liberty, saith the LORD, unto the sword, unto the pestilence, and unto the famine; and I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth.
God gave a a separate punishment for the very act of breaking the vow to God: Nebuchadnezzar comes back a few years later and destroys the little left of Jerusalem, Kills most of the people, drives the rest into exile, and burns the Temple. But that’s in addition to the immediate punishment for recapturing the slaves.

Social issues in a book on Idolatry?

Pay attention to two things, from which we can learn much:

  • Jeremiah was not a "social" prophet. Social injustice was the main feature of others' , like Isaiah's prophecies. However, until chapter 34, there is not one word on social injustice in the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was more interested in trying to curtail idolatry, and warning that unless Jerusalem returned to God, the idolatry would lead to destruction of the city and of the Temple.

Inclusion of this "social" prophecy in the book of Jeremiah's
prophecies shows that this was not just a "social" or a "criminal"
issue. The recapture of freed "slaves" was a direct insult to God.

  • Judaism sees "buying" a Hebrew servant as an act of charity, not as an act of "buying" another human being. In most cases, these servants were thieves who didn't have money to replace what they stole. "Buying" a servant to repay his debt was a big responsibility: the "master" was totally responsible for the servant's welfare and well-being, and for the welfare and well-being of his family.
    The Talmud (Kedishin 20) states: "One who purchases a Hebrew
    servant purchases a master for himself".

    The needs of this indentured, penniless thief who was brought into the home of the person he stole from took at least equal footing with those of the "master's" family. These servants were servants- but they were granted by God maximum levels of liberty and dignity.

By including this prophecy in the book, the editors (About 70 years after the events described) are telling us that what was done to the slaves is a sin on par with idolatry- a direct insult to God, and an inequity with similar consequences: it brought about ruin and destruction unheard of even there and then.

We were also slaves, once

  • In this prophecy, God refers to the covenant of the Exodus from "The House of Slavery". Slaves have no free will and no dignity. At the Exodus, the People of Israel gained not only liberty, but dignity. Every Jew is commanded by God to remember that he or she is descended from slaves, and was granted liberty and dignity by God. God demands we give liberty and dignity to others. What was done to the lower classes by the nobility before the "pact with God" was unconscionable. No one should be deprived of freedom outside the parameters set by the Law.

    Once indentured, servants must be treated with respect and dignity.
    They may not be held beyond a predetermined period of time.
    They may not be mistreated.
  • When the inhabitants of Jerusalem recaptured those freed, they were publicly proclaiming that they were 'absolving' themselves of their covenant with God. They never really cared about that in the first place. They just wanted Nebuchadnezzar off their backs.

    Jeremiah teaches us that respecting others,
    even those who have stolen from us, with dignity,
    curtailing their liberty only in accordance with the Law,
    is equal to respecting God.
    Mistreating them is a slap in God's face.

A lesson for the Judiciary

When, about 12 years ago, I worked with the Knesset Judiciary committee on drafting Israel's sex offender community supervision law, the committee chairman, MK Michael Eitan, would constantly remind us that every curtailment of offenders' civil rights must be justified and conform to Israel's Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) which declares that any violation of civil rights may be only be: "by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required". Anything MK Eitan saw as "greater than required" was, in his eyes, an affront to Human Dignity, and was therefore rewritten or deleted.

MK Eitan reminded us all that even when protecting the public from sex offenders, the liberty and human dignity of the offenders must be preserved. And it works. Israel has one of the most lenient community supervision laws and one of the lowest sexual recidivism rates in the world.

A lesson for clinical practice:

It's not always easy to remember to treat offenders we assess or treat with dignity. They don't treat others that way. They sexually, physically and (or) emotionally abused others, sometimes their own children, sometimes repeatedly. Many justify what they did or are even proud of it. They cause extremely negative (to say the least) counter-transference reactions.

  • We need to make a conscious effort to treat everyone we see, even repeat and unrepentant offenders, with respect. If we don't it's an affront to ourselves as professionals and as compassionate human beings. It ultimately harms the patient and may adversely affect therapy and desistance. It is an affront to our ethical standards and to God.

So, please, let us all take a lesson from Jeremiah's only social prophecy, and treat everyone, in our personal and professional lives, no matter how hard it may be to do so sometimes, with dignity and respect. Those who work with the criminal Justice system- remember curtailing Liberty is a big responsibility. Do it cautiously, and never more than necessary.

© 2019 David A Cohen


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