Rav Kook’s Thoughts on Slavery: Coherence and Tension


One of the monumental societal changes that occurred in the 19th century was the abolition of slavery. That this was done primarily because of a moral argument made significant waves in Jewish thought at the time. If one human being owned and completely subservient to another human, without his or her own personal autonomy, is so despicable, how can it be that the Torah allows for it?  On the contrary, Leviticus 25 can be read as encouraging ownership of slaves:

And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen forever (Leviticus 25:44-46).[1]

The Rabbis of the Talmud took this positive encouragement to the normative level. Rav Yehuda noted that freeing a [Canaanite] slave is a violation of the positive command “of them may ye take your bondmen forever” (BT Gittin 38b). The morality of the Torah therefore seemed to conflict with the morality of enlightened western society. Many thinkers in this period felt the pressure of this conflict and developed theories on the relationship between the Torah’s morality and morality of the surrounding cultures. Some of these thinkers chose one side and abandoned the other to defeat, while others preferred reconciliation between the two. In this essay, I examine Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s writings on the ethical nature of slavery, and how he used it as a microcosm of larger tensions between societal and Torah morality.

Before we begin looking at Rav Kook’s writings, it is worth familiarizing ourselves with the primary sources at play. In addition to Leviticus 25 (which encompasses a much larger passage than the excerpt quoted above), the Torah first outlines rules pertaining to slaveholding in the beginning of Exodus 21. Here the Torah introduces what is known as the “Israelite servant,” who goes free after six years, in contrast to the eternal servitude of the Canaanite slave of Leviticus 25. The final source that focuses on laws unique to slaves is Deuteronomy 15, where the Torah obligates the master of the Israelite slave to give him a substantial gift when he finishes his service.  In the passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, no background is given to the social instution of slavery or its justification; rather, the Torah presents the topic in a conditional format: if you find yourself in the situation of owning a slave, then here are the relevant rules. Leviticus gives some indication of how the Israelite slave becomes a slave: “And if your kinsman is in straits and is sold to you” – the slave sells himself into servitude because of his poverty.[2]

In all of these sources, the Torah deals with slavery as something that should be limited:  When you own a slave, he goes free after six years; he gets a parting gift; you may not work him excessively hard and must treat him like a hired worker. This gives intellectual ammunition to those arguing in favor of the Torah’s implicit agreement with the position of enlightened western morality: the fact that the Torah limits slavery to make it much more humane shows that it really does not endorse slavery per se. In fact, the Torah does not allow “slavery” at all; what is described here is nothing more than indentured servitude, and good conditions for that as well. This argument loses much of its strength, though, when it is noted that the restrictions given in Leviticus are specifically about treating an Israelite slave well, explicitly contrasted with a Canaanite slave. The Torah does not say anything permitting mistreatment of a Canaanite slave, but implies it is allowed, especially as the defining restriction on Israelite slavery – the limited period of servitude – does not exist for a Canaanite. Even if one accepts the position that Jews should care more for fellow Israelites than for foreigners, the Torah’s nonchalant acceptance of slavery in this form is still troubling.[3]

One additional text in which the Torah explicitly refers to slavery is not a legal text, but a narrative one. In Genesis 9, the final scene of Noah’s narrative, Noah curses his grandson Canaan – arguably as a proxy for Ham – with the language, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be unto his brethren,” and repeats the motif of Canaan’s servitude to his brothers in blessings to his other sons as well. Rav Kook refers specifically to this portion in his analysis.

Rav Kook himself approached this issue in his Letter #89 and followed up in #90, both correspondences with his close student Moshe Seidel.[4] Letter #89 addresses a variety of topics that fall into the general question of contemporary morality and the Torah. Without the original letters Seidel sent, it is impossible to know whether the organization of the letter was Rav Kook’s initiative or if he was only following the structure that Seidel provided for him in a list of various questions. Presumably the creation of the letter followed a mix of these: Seidel provided a list of questions, and Rav Kook responded in an essay. Rav Kook’s major defense of the presence of slavery in the Torah falls into two categories: one assumes a more apologetic position, while the other asserts slavery as an essential positive.  What is particularly interesting is that over the course of his letters Rav Kook bounces between these two sides of the argument. The reader should keep in mind, however, that though these approaches may seem inconsistent with each other, Rav Kook understood them as elements of a single, unified perspective.

Rav Kook’s first approach to the issue acknowledges that regardless of legality, slavery is innate in the world. Within the world order, there will always be oppressors and oppressed, and he applies this specifically to the rich and the poor. The pressures and counter-pressures between rich business-owners and poor workers are still raging today, but were much more imbalanced in the turn of the 20th century, the letter’s original context. Rav Kook provides the example of a coal miner to illustrate his point:

For example, coal miners, who are voluntarily employed, are in effect slaves to their employers. It is certainly the lot of some people to be of lower class. If not for the wickedness that so controls the heart of man, to the point that it tramples justice, the situation of slaves would be better if they were actually owned. For example, we now need moral inspiration to be concerned about the material and moral lives of workers, while the rich, with their shuttered hearts, scoff at all morals and ethics. It would be better for him if the mines lacked air and light, even if this shortens the lifespan of tens of thousands of men, many of whom become critically ill, as long as they need not spend tens of thousands of dollars to improve conditions in the mine. If a mineshaft occasionally collapses burying workers alive, they do not even notice, for they will find other workers to hire.[5]

Even after the abolition of slavery in the United States and in Europe, workers were no more than wage slaves. They worked under terrible conditions, and the master-qua-businessman did not care for them in any way. They could not opt out, because they needed money to feed themselves, but the businessman could dispose of them as he pleased, because there were always more workers available to hire.

Rav Kook accepts that this is the way the world works. Since the world is in a non-ideal state, the Torah’s legal slavery – even the laws of a Canaanite slave – serves as a rectifier.

If these people were owned by the master by legal slavery, he would worry about them as he worries about his wealth, “since it was his money.” Then these poor workers would indeed be happier and could look forward to a better future.[6]

Though he does not say it explicitly, Rav Kook assumes that buying a slave is much more of an investment than hiring a worker. Since a worker is paid in wages, his worth to the owner is only that week’s production. But a slave is owned permanently, so his worth is measured in his lifetime output, which is much greater than that of the worker. The owner therefore is much more inclined to protect the greater investment, and thus the permanently owned slave is much better off than the weekly-wage slave.[7]

This argument is different from the “fix the common problem” argument often made in discussions of te’amei ha-mitzvot, reasons for the commandments. That argument reasons that since the institution of slavery was so ingrained in the surrounding cultures, the Torah knows that Israel will not be able to abandon that institution entirely and therefore accommodates slavery but restricts and regulates it. [8]Such a line of thought falls into the same category as “The Torah spoke only against the Evil Inclination” concerning the laws of a beautiful captive woman (BT Kiddushin 21b), and appears also in Maimonides’s te’amei hamitzvot for sacrifices (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46). Rav Kook’s approach is markedly different. First, the “accommodation” argument can accept that slavery was a temporary evil, and the accommodation does not need to reflect an eternal idea but a temporal reality. But according to Rav Kook, slavery was not just in the Ancient Near East but embedded into the social fabric of reality. Therefore, the acceptance of slavery must reflect a timeless notion.  Furthermore, the Torah is not accommodating anything at all. It is not giving in to the desires of the people. It is not providing an alternative to the evil but a corrective: if the entire world were to institute legal slavery as the Torah prescribes, everyone in society would be better off.

As this pertains to the larger question, this approach reconciles the Torah’s morality with the morality of Rav Kook’s time period, but only partially. Both agree that slavery is not ideal, and – at least at this point in the discussion – both agree that removal of personal freedom is bad.[9] But where the modern society saw the abolition of slavery as a triumph, Rav Kook saw it as a near-sighted triumph only in the theoretical realm. It was never possible to truly remove slavery from human society, and the persistance of “legalized slavery” at certain levels of the industrial workforce leaves society no better off post-Abolition than before. In this way, Rav Kook uses his own observations to defend the supremacy of what he sees as the plain meaning of the Torah’s philosophy.

A passage later in the letter, following the second argument defending slavery, supports the thought that Rav Kook’s contemporary society was mistaken in its crusade against slavery. There Rav Kook berates those who drew the conclusion to abolish slavery based on Scripture. Rav Kook writes that these people are “like astrologers who see but do not see” because they were not able to comprehend the complex messages in the Torah.  Even if one part of Scripture implies that slavery should be abolished, there are many pieces to the puzzle that only a devoted Torah scholar can understand, and only such a scholar can draw conclusions concerning public practice.  This course of thought again rates the Torah’s morality as above the morality of society, and treats it as the eternal standard bearer. Rav Kook may also be implying here that since the Torah is more complex, it is a “better” moral system that includes more relevant factors in its equations than others.

In addition to accepting legal slavery as the best option given the social fabric of the world, Rav Kook takes his defense of the Torah a controversial step further. Shifting perspectives from the societal to the personal, Rav Kook argues that some people should be slaves. In a manner surely disturbing to the sensibilities of the contemporary reader, yet quite in consonance with popular attitudes of his time to the questions of race and peoplehood, Rav Kook argues that some people’s desires are so base and immoral that it in fact would be better off for them, and for society, that they are under the control of a master. This master can teach these individuals how to behave properly and can also watch over them so as to shift their way of living. Rav Kook associates these individuals primarily with the descendants of Ham, based on the verses in Genesis 9 mentioned above. In his explanation, what occurred in this passage is not that Noah actively cursed Canaan, but he noticed a flaw in Canaan’s nature that caused him to do what he did. Canaan was not punished or supernaturally cursed, but Noah gave his sons advice concerning slavery. It is good that Canaan be a slave, Noah says.  Rav Kook interprets this that it is better for Canaan to be a slave than to be a free man, because he is of a poor nature; if he were left to his own devices, he would only be destructive. Rav Kook supports his assertion with his observation that the majority of historical slaves indeed were descendants of Ham – Africans. According to Rav Kook, instead of a coincidence, this shows the active hand of God in history: following the theory of inheritance of acquired traits, Rav Kook believed the genetic propensity toward baseness passed down from Ham to all of his descendants. So he explains, to better humanity, God made sure that many of his people would be slaves.  Although this mode of explanation is doubtless disturbing and uncomfortable from a contemporary perspective, in a more technical sense, both this and the previous argument explain how slavery is really the best way of dealing with the world situation – from society as a whole to the smallest individual.  Instead of looking at the slave trade as an unequivocal evil, Rav Kook looks at it certainly as tolerable, if not completely acceptable, given what he understands to be fundamental truths of human nature. In so doing, from a methodological vantage point, he again solves an apparent discrepency between Torah morality and popular morality by affirming the existence of a conflict and placing the Torah’s morality above that of society.

Until this point, Rav Kook has defended the Torah’s inclusion of slavery as normal, good, and even a preferable way to deal with reality. However, in sum, he refuses to concede that this is in fact the ideal situation. Embedded in the middle of the paragraphs on slavery, Rav Kook includes a section whose theme is lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, the importance of going beyond the letter of the law. Rav Kook thinks that the ideal performance of humanity lies in the Torah but also beyond it. He recognizes that there is a tremendous pressure for the system to be constructed in a way that man’s good deeds stem not from external pressures – legal, or even moral – but from his own “enlightened spirit.” In fact, he sees going beyond the letter of the law as the primary purpose of Halakha. The goal of the Torah – the purpose of the world, really – is to bring people gradually to a higher and more enlightened spiritual level. Individuals and societies progress “higher and higher,” closer to a near-divine, idealized state. But such progress can only be made gradually. Therefore, the Torah only legislates things that are necessary to create a functioning and basic moral society, but each step forward is made by every generation of its own volition. People are encouraged, but they need to elevate themselves personally. This begins with individuals, but gradually spreads to the surrounding society:

What must be added through generosity of spirit and freedom of good will must thus remain “deeds of the pious.” We cannot even imagine the great loss that would result to human culture if these great qualities were established as obligatory…Those matters that target the depths of good as it spreads, like the dew of resurrection, are intended for the future and are considered acts of generosity and love of kindness. This is the fate of going “beyond the letter of the law,” which will do much good at the time that man’s stone heart will be replaced with a heart of flesh.  Thus, those matters that are left as “beyond the letter of the law” must remain that way. As humanity is uplifted, the qualities of the pious will leave private property and become public property; they will be acquired by the entire nation – “And all of your sons will be learned of God.”[10]

Rav Kook expands on his philosophy of developing Halakha more in Letter #90, but this passage does not seem to connect to the matter at hand. He does not even mention the idea of slavery once in this section. What must be inferred, therefore, is that Rav Kook does not look to slavery as an ideal. Its legislation is necessary, a solution for the evils that natural slavery would otherwise inflict, and a way for the slave class to be productive and raise their own character.  However, lifnim mi-shurat ha-din here is completely eradicating slavery – legal and natural. The ultimate actualization of the ideal world represents this: In the end of days no one will feel the urge to oppress another and the slave class will be corrected to lose their corrupt desires. Only then will everyone be able to worship God using his own will, fulfilling his essential spirit. Rav Kook therefore agrees with the spirit of his time, that freedom is an ideal, and slavery is problematic. However, like all things in the world, Rav Kook believes slavery has a purpose, and even more so than pure evil does.[11] He therefore leaves its removal to a state where slavery is not necessary at all, the idealized End of Days.[12]

If we think about how Rav Kook’s individual arguments play out today, they deliver different ramifications. The first argument about natural slavery contains much less power than it did in his time. Already in Letter #90, Rav Kook acknowledges that industrialization has begun to limit the existence of natural slavery: “The need for slaves has fallen as mechanization has further developed and man can better rule over the powers of nature.” This has greatly increased in the past century, with mechanization replacing most menial jobs people used to do by hand.  That practice, and regulation of business practices in the western world, take care of the worker enough that slavery does not seem like much of an improvement. In the still-developing world, however, menial jobs are still produced by laborers working in terrible conditions for lowly wages. To Rav Kook, the type of slavery he envisions – and understands the Torah envisioning – could result in a real betterment of these people’s lives.

The second argument, though, plays out very differently than the first. Since it is not conditioned on the surrounding societies but on the inherent character of people and nations, a change in society does not effect a change in the value of slavery. If so, one may surmise that according to Rav Kook, the people who are still in what he deems a ‘slave-worthy class’ really still ought to be in a system that restricts them for their own good and for the good of the community.[13]

If a person in today’s environment were struggling with the question of morality in the Torah, specifically with slavery, and looking for a philosophy to latch onto, it seems unlikely that he would find Rav Kook’s philosophy to be particularly appealing. On the one hand, it does appeal to certain sensitivities that we hold from our society’s morality – on an ideal plane, slavery is problematic. It also restores faith in the Torah’s morality: really, the Torah is working to improve conditions for all people, and does not tolerate abuse. On the other hand, however, Rav Kook’s philosophy on this matter provides many significant challenges to the contemporary philosopher, largely due to implications obviously incongruous with and deeply offensive to anyone with a contemporary mindset. It relies heavily on a theory of races that clashes with the dominant universalistic terms people speak in today and has no scientific backing. It also directly opposes the notion that freedom and personal autonomy is sacrosanct: Rav Kook clearly thought that, in many situations, Torah-sanctioned slavery was actually preferable to the alternative of a society overrun with unchecked perversion.

Perhaps this tension is reflective of the fact that Rav Kook held by the Torah steadfastly as an axiom, understanding it as he saw to be most authentic and not looking to make it fit to some other theory of his time. He held by his principles and was thrilled when the world around him agreed with them, but he was not swayed when they did not. In fact, he argues with contemporary philosophers in many of his writings.[14] For some, this can actually enhance the appeal of Rav Kook’s philosophy.  As Rav Kook understood it, the Torah’s philosophy does not necessarily agree with the preconceived notions of someone asking questions that he dealt with, but it provides an internally complete, coherent, and consistent philosophy that can be justified. Furthermore, this philosophical system includes flexibility and connection with societal morality as explained in Letter #90, where he discusses the development of morality and the corresponding development of Halakha.  But all this change does not weaken the integrity of the Torah in Rav Kook’s vision. Rav Kook understood the Torah as all encompassing; the Torah contains everything and therefore there is no truth outside the Torah. This perspective naturally provides subscribers with a level of security in their faith. What exactly this all-encompassing Torah says can be, and often is, up for debate; many thinkers, for example, disagree heartily with Rav Kook’s interpretation of slavery and his unabashed defense of what he sees to be its social merit.[15] Still, even if one finds implications of Rav Kook’s approach to be uncomfortable or objectionable in this circumstance, perhaps one need not identify with the whole of the content of this particular interpretation to appreciate the methodology that motivates it. Indeed: Rav Kook’s philosophy of a Torah that encompasses all, that one can learn everything from it, is in itself perhaps a worthwhile approach to embrace.


[1] All translations from JPS 1917 edition, taken from www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] This verse is part of a larger structure of Leviticus 25 outlining how to care for individuals in varying stages of poverty: selling their land, selling their house, taking a loan, selling themselves to a Jew, and finally selling themselves to a non-Jew.

[3] There are restrictions on what may be done even to Canaanite slaves.  Killing a slave is equivalent to murder of a free man.  A master may not physically abuse his slaves either: if he blinds or maims the slave, the slave goes free.

[4] Letters 89-91 are generally referred to as a collective unit See Tamir Granot. “Lecture 14a.” Rav Kook’s Letters. Yeshivat Har Etzion. Virtual Beit Midrash.

[5] Rav Kook. Letter #89. Translation by Tamir Granot. “Lecture #15-Lecture #18.” Rav Kook’s Letters.  Yeshivat Har Etzion. Virtual Beit Midrash.

[6] Ibid.

[7] This logic has not always held up to the lens of history. Particularly when slaves were easily replaceable – either by purchasing new ones or raising children of slaves – owners could easily view their slaves as merely expendable property, and abuse them with little concern of harm done to themselves.

[8] See, for example, Rabbi Alex Israel’s discussion:  Israel also compares this view with Rav Kook’s position.

[9] Rav Kook’s notions of the philosophical nature slavery and liberty are tangentially relevant to this discussion, as they may point towards whom Rav Kook thinks is really a slave.  But that is beyond the scope of this essay.

[10] Rav Kook, Letter 89. Granot “Lecture #15-Lecture #18”

[11] As he describes in his essays on The Purpose of Evil (Orot HaKodesh 2:14-15, and further).

[12] Earlier in the essay, Rav Kook comments on how the abolition movement responded to the corrupted form of legal slavery that was abusive and against the Torah’s wishes.  There he writes, “This remedy must be hidden in the Torah until the enlightened time when Torah proceeds from Tzion, “And ten men from all of the languages of the nations will grab hold of the corner of [the garment] of one Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”  I do not believe this is a reference to the End of Days when the world is holy enough to handle the complete abolition of slavery.  Rather, I think Rav Kook here is discussing a scenario prior to this, when the world understands the truth of the Torah to follow its statutes and ideals, but slavery is still necessary.

[13] Rav Kook supports his claims about Ham based on the early 20th century theory of evolution of inherited traits.  This theory has been abandoned in contemporary times, and if Rav Kook were writing today he would presumably not have included it as a scientific basis for his idea.  His claim is also heavily staked in sources from the Torah as.  I am thus not sure how he would have approached racial theory if he were instead raised in today’s philosophical environment.

[14] Rav Shalom Carmy, as taught in “Philosophy of Rav Kook” class, Yeshiva College Spring 2016

[15] For an alternative approach, see for example Rav Lichtenstein’s view in Mevakshei Panecha: Sichot with Harav Aharon Lichtenstein, by Rav Chaim Sabato (Jerusalem: Yediot Aharonot, 2011).