The Value of a Human Being: Slavery, Labor and Assessing Human Worth in Parashat Mishpatim

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 5, 2016 – 26 Shevat, 5776

What is the value of a human being? This sounds like a rhetorical question. After all, if we are created in the image of God, then isn’t the value of every person infinite, priceless? Isn’t that a basic belief of Judaism and even of American society?

Even if the answer to the above is yes, each life is infinitely valuable, Judaism and societies in general and legal systems in particular can’t and don’t operate under such an assumption. To do so, as we will come to see, is sometimes a devaluation of human worth.

Rather, determining the value of a human being is dependent on the lens we use.

No one is surprised that different professions have varying pay grades. We recognize that the output and the skills of people create different benefits for society as a whole. It takes many years to train to become a doctor. An individual also needs to possess some level of aptitude in math and the sciences. Those aptitudes are not evenly distributed among people, any more than athleticism. So most societies value our efforts in different ways, and our struggle is to determine whether a given profession is deserving of a given salary or if the system is rigged in too arbitrary or prejudicial a manner. Should professional athletes earn seven or eight figure salaries? Are teachers adequately paid? What about fire fighters and financial investors?

This week’s Torah portion takes on the question of human worth head on. As is usual with the Torah, it teaches us by juxtaposing different concepts together. By examining how the Torah handles each concept, we come to see a nuanced and sophisticated image of its notion for a fair society.

For example, one of the world’s first statements of worker’s compensation finds expression here. If you cause bodily damage to another person, such that they lose an eye or a tooth, you are responsible for compensating them the value of the eye. If we were to imagine that a human is infinitely valuable, we could never make restitution-any part of us would therefore also be infinitely valuable. The Talmud draws on the Torah’s command, and establishes norms so that we can make restitution and therefore carry out justice. We determine, in part, what changes to another person’s earning potential result because of the injury. We are thus responsible for their lost time, the cost of healing them, and any ongoing reduction in their standard of living.

Simultaneously, Parshat Mishpatim indicates when we do indeed hold human life to be infinitely valuable. This week’s reading sets up safe sanctuaries where individuals who have committed manslaughter can go. In an era and region of the world where people often took the law into their own hands and might kill a person before guilt had been established, Judaism took steps to preserve the inviolable value of another person’s life.

In a like vein, the Torah counter-intuitively tells us when to exact the death penalty. While our later Sages made it virtually impossible to ever enact the death penalty, the Torah mentions it so that we can learn what sort of acts can never be repaid, and what sort of acts undermine the essential dignity and worth of human life. Murdering another person is an example where the Torah did not want to establish a monetary value for human life, for if it did, people of means could always get away with killing those without.

When it comes to the issue of slavery, we need to look at the written and oral law to understand how Judaism approaches this issue. For while our Torah reading seems to permit it, the later Sages imposed a series of heavy financial and ethical burdens on slave owners so that the Talmud famously tells us, “one who buys a Hebrew slave is like buying a master for himself.” Our later thinkers end up outlawing slavery entirely, because they understood that our basic conceptions of human equality and dignity are such that here, at least, the value of a human being is indeed infinite.

Unfortunately, while our society pays lip service to this notion, slavery remains a despicable blight in the modern world. Estimates place the number of slaves on the planet today at anywhere from 21-30 million. Last night, a small number of congregants gathered here at Neveh to listen to Ketzel Levine and her associates present on contemporary slavery in Portland. Portland disturbingly is a large and important center for human trafficking. The Oregon Board of Rabbis recently completed our resolution condemning such trafficking and committed to educating our community about this scourge. I hope you’ll view this week’s message as my charge for our community to learn and seek out information about contemporary slavery in our city.

For while the law sometimes demands that we treat people as having a monetary value, we do so to protect the injured and to make sure that justice can be enacted. When it comes to the basic freedom and dignity of others, however, Judaism does indeed remind us that each of us is indeed of infinite worth. No human being should be owned. The fact that so many millions are ought to disturb our sleep.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

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