By Rabbi Avigdor Miller Z”TL.
Q: Why Did the Torah Permit Slavery?
A: Let’s understand that we’re living in a time when all the standards are measured by the fad of the day. Slavery is today considered as something to be abhorred, but you have to realize this wasn’t the case in ancient times among Jews.
First of all, among Gentiles in ancient times, what would a person who had no livelihood do? Land was passed on from father to son. Suppose you had no land, you had no family, or you were a stranger, what would you do? You would die of starvation. So Eliezer eved (servant of) Avraham who wanted to become a loyal disciple of his great teacher, what did he do? He gladly became an eved of Avraham (slave).
In those days to become a slave meant you joined the family in a certain status. Hagar happily became a shifcha (slave-girl) to Sarah; it meant joining the family. She was a member of the family. In those ancient days, in cases where the woman, the ba’alas habayis (mistress of the house) was childless, she gave her handmaiden to her husband, and he had children from her. That’s how it used to be way back before the Torah was given. Slavery had a different face in the ancient days.
You can judge [the Torah’s slavery] from the following. Suppose a Jew bought a slave who refused to circumcise, the Jew could say to him, I’ll sell you back to the gentiles. That was considered a threat. And in almost every case the slave was willing to circumcise.
Slavery was an institution that fit into the social structure of Jewish life and the Jewish slave, even the eved Canaani (Caananite slave), to some extent, lived a privileged life, and the Torah protected him. Therefore there is no question that slavery should have been sanctioned, as it was, by the Torah.