What would you do if an escaped slave showed up on your doorstep in Canaan in 1400 B.C.E., or in Memphis in 1810, or in Tel Aviv in 2012? The problem of the runaway slave is both ancient and modern.
Slavery plagued America for more than two centuries, beginning with its evolution in the British colony of Virginia. Many people are unaware that the proponents of slavery, beginning in the 1830s, actually increased their militancy and sought further legal sanctions for human bondage. From 1836-1844, Congress was under the “Gag Rule,” which effectively prohibited the discussion of slavery. Southern states routinely intercepted and burned anti-slavery tracts that were sent through the postal system.
The nadir of this movement occurred with passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which provided for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another state or territory. The courts allowed an owner to use "reasonable force" to detain runaways and anyone who tried to help a detained slave escape would be subject to the scrutiny of a federal "grand inquest,” a grand jury. Not only were local sheriffs and other officials compelled to cooperate with the apprehension of runaway slaves under penalty of substantial fines, but the law stated that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law.” Thus, all citizens were compelled to support slavery. While the Underground Railroad helped many escaped slaves, runaways were only safe when they reached Canada.
After the Civil War, only about 150 years ago, the fugitive slave laws ended along with slavery in America. In contrast, the Jewish tradition has been very progressive, as our holy Torah prohibited this 3,300 years ago!
As we learn in the Torah, if a slave from another town escapes, the Torah forbids the return of the refugee slave to his master (Deuteronomy 23:16). The Torah could have gone in a very different direction, based upon contemporary values. For example, in the ancient law found in the Code of Hammurabi (which was issued before the Torah, about 3,800 years ago in Babylonia), Hammurabi legislated (16-17) that one who hides a refugee slave in his home should be put to death, while one who hands over the slave to his owner should receive a payment.
The Torah, on the other hand, ruled that it is forbidden to return a runaway slave. The Ramban makes clear that Jewish law does not view the runaway slave as a new slave, but as completely free. We are dealing with a human being, not property, the Torah insisted; to return one fleeing for his life would put him at grave danger. The Ha’amek Davar, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), taught that we must remember that the slave has not just run away from the rigors of slavery, but has chosen asylum specifically to be with you. He is searching for something more in life since he has chosen to run toward you. The Talmud explains that the Torah is dealing specifically with a case of a slave from another country fleeing to the state of Israel (Gittin 45a).
In July, I took a group of our students from the yeshiva in Efrat, Israel, where I was teaching, to Tel Aviv to meet with the African refugees sleeping in the parks. In Israel, great debates have emerged concerning what to do with the 60,000 refugees who have entered Israel since 2006 seeking asylum. Significantly, Israel is the only democratic state with a land connection to Africa, so it is inevitable that a large portion of African refugees would seek to go there. These undocumented migrants cross into Israel either looking for work or fleeing from severe persecution. They are essentially escaping slavery, extreme poverty, or death. The social and economic burdens are immense, and Israel overall is already struggling very nobly with very limited resources. Clearly, Israel cannot be a home for all refugees who wish to come. This is not a fair request of this tiny state already overwhelmed with social and economic issues. Many are pushing for the refugees to be deported, but Jewish law as we have learned is that we may not return a slave to their master. Israel, a nation of refugees itself, must develop a legal process for non-Jewish refugees. Defending the runaway slave is fundamental to our tradition.
Closer to home, today, we are unlikely to encounter literal “runaway slaves.” Nevertheless, do we not encounter those who have undergone traumatic experiences? Many have baggage and are running from it. Every day, we try to escape parts of our past that have confined us (failures, pains, losses). When we encounter another, do we return him or her to their master or are we a part of their liberation? How do we embrace those who have just filed for bankruptcy, completed their divorce, or come out of sitting shiva for a lost family member? They have been trapped in some misery, and when they reach our doorstep, how do we embrace them? In a sense we are all runaway slaves running out of fear from danger and even our inevitable death. We can never fully understand the emotions attached to one’s entrapment; we can merely open our arms.
According to the Talmud, one may not remind someone of their past (where they have run from) if they have changed their ways, and we may never do anything to block others from their own teshuva (repentance and transformation). This requires humility. In approaching others, we must remember that we do not stand in their shoes and we must not judge them.
In dealing with the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, fighting against slave owners, said: “my concern is not whether G-d is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on G-d's side.”
We do not know that the other is wrong. We just know that we must keep our eyes on the prize and do what is right.
The Torah’s mandate that we may not return a runaway slave still has relevance and far-reaching implications today.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"