Slaves, Piercings and Gender-bending

Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

presented in 1999

In a course that I teach on gender and health I once asked the students to stage a debate over: Who suffers more from stress, men or women. Those who argued that women are more stressed made a predictably strong case having to do with the consequences of living in a society in which women suffer from economic discrimination, domestic violence, and political under-representation. The surprise for me was that those who argued that men are more stressed made an even more compelling case having to do with the competing demands made on men in contemporary society – the demand that they act “like real men,” alongside the demand that they cast off generations of gender socialization, develop gentle mannerisms, and share equally and eagerly in housework and childcare responsibilities. While today’s parasha (Torah reading) does not offer very ATTRACTIVE solutions for contemporary men struggling with the stress of competing demands, it does allow us to see that the dilemmas and stress faced by contemporary men have very ancient roots indeed.

A dramatic and difficult passage in parashat Mishpatim opens an unusual window onto what it means to be an Israelite male. In the context of a discussion about the various fates of several categories of male and female slaves, we read regarding the MALE eved ivri (Hebrew slave) that when his time of service is up: “If his master has given him a wife and she bore him sons or daughters, the woman and her offspring will belong to the master and he [the male eved ivri] will leave alone. And if the slave says I love my master and my wife and my children, I will not go free.  His master will go to God and will go to the door or the doorpost and will drill his ear with an awl and he will be his slave forever.”

This passage is not an easy one, especially given the Biblical abhorrence of bodily disfiguration, an abhorrence that is actually codified in a law prohibiting bodily mutilation (Leviticus 19:27,28). The question that jumps out of the text is: what has the slave done to elicit a reaction so severe that it breaks with wider cultural norms regarding the sanctity of the body.

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