This week’s parasha goes through the laws of living in ארץ ישראל, and includes the laws of slavery:
This is the source of the idea of an “עבד כנעני”, which has one other law, way back in פרשת משפטים:
This is horribly morally troubling. How can the Torah allow for one human being to own another? All people have their own moral value, and I can’t use someone else as an object. Slavery may have existed throughout history, but so have murder and theft. Slavery is so intuitively morally abhorrent that we tend to ignore the עבד כנעני laws, and talk about how humane the laws of עבד עברי are.
But it’s worse. There’s actually a מצוַת עשה to keep slaves:
And we see that throughout תנ״ך:
The commandment isn’t as bad as it seems; there’s no obligation to take slaves. The מצוַת עשה is one of those odd positive commandments that really are negative: not an obligation to have a slave, but if you have one, don’t free them:
However, this מצוַת עשה has a lot of loopholes:
Now, that last comment, ועוד שגם הוא מתרבה בגופו במצות, is a loophole you could drive a truck through. Freeing an עבד כנעני means they are full-fledged Jews. That implies that it is always permitted to free a slave, as long as they will keep the הלכה. The commandment לעולם בהם תעבודו is analogous to the law that a Jew cannot convert to another religion.
Rav Kook made the argument (that I am uncomfortable with because of its apparent racism) that slavery is good for some people and thus is moral:
We will return to Rav Kook’s comment כל זמן שהעבדות הטבעית תהיה מוכרחת להיות נהוגה בחברה האנושית.
There’s another side to the halacha: the pasuk says מהם תקנו. Slavery is allowed only as other nations permit it. We can turn a slave in some other society into an עבד כנעני, but we can’t kidnap people as slaves. The example of Shlomo is different; the government as represented by the king can draft anyone into national service. It may have been ethnocentric and unethical, but it was not part of the law of עבד כנעני.
So the law of עבד כנעני fundamentally depends on what the other nations consider legal. And Rav Kook felt that part of our mission was to help the world develop to the point that slavery was no longer normal:
The Sifra implies this as well, that the permission to own slaves is only if we feel we need them:
So the halacha of עבד כנעני is like the אשת יפת תואר, a concession to human nature. Once slavery exists, we have an obligation to bring them תחת כנפי השכינה and שגם הוא מתרבה בגופו במצות. But the ideal is a global society where no human being can own another.