Some people take the God of Jews and Christians to task because the world he is said to sustain runs over, like a river in flood, with acts of aggression. Why doesn’t God do something about it, since he can? The question comes up often in the Bible. It is a question that believers pose, if in fact they are believers. Jews and Christians know this, if they have read the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the books of Job and Qohelet.
It is not a question non-believers necessarily pose, unless they want to aggravate believers. Ayn Rand atheists in particular are convinced that God does not care, and neither should they. Live and let die.
An ethically responsible way of approaching the question of God’s justice is to turn the question against ourselves. For example, why don’t we do something about human trafficking, since we can?
Some argue for a ban on the things that feed the appetite for human trafficking: (1) the sale of sex and (2) the sale of illegal drugs. The facts are clear. Pimps prefer workers they can threaten and treat as slaves. Drug dealers prefer sellers they can throw away if caught: illegal aliens, minors bereft of guardians, and hopeless addicts. Some countries, such as Sweden, ban prostitution. Virtually all countries ban the sale of a cornucopia of drugs sought after by pleasure seekers and addicts. The extent to which said bans are effective is limited.
Others argue that prostitution should be legal like other for-profit enterprises, and taxed based on the sheep-shearing principle (the principle attributed to the Social Democrat Olof Palme, who famously said that the goal of responsible government is not to kill capitalism, but to shear it as one shears sheep). Supposedly that would make life better for prostitutes and their clients, and less profitable for pimps.
But Janice Reymond points out that “legalization has failed to protect the women in prostitution … [or] decrease … trafficking from other countries.”
Tolerance and taxation of prostitution have a long history.1 The taxation of prostitution in Rome was a significant source of revenue for the See of Peter when occupied by Pope Leo X. For many pilgrims, the theory apparently was: what happens in Rome stays in Rome. The theory, of course, rests on the most wishful of foundations. What about the women and men who serviced the pilgrims? What about the diseases they transmitted to third parties?2
There is no doubt that Jews and Christians in general, past and present, have considered prostitution to be a necessary evil at best, with emphasis on the evil. In a separate post, I plan to discuss the views of Augustine and Aquinas on the subject, since they are often misrepresented.
My concern in this post is not prostitution per se, but human trafficking. Human trafficking is a pervasive practice in the modern world. It takes many forms, one of which involves the enslavement of women in order to put them to work in the sex-for-money industry. It will continue regardless of how and whether states clamp down on it. Here and now, what can we do about human trafficking?
The answer is obvious. We can redeem the captives, one person at a time.
Maimonides is our teacher here. If you are a Christian and think Rambam should not be your teacher, you aren't familiar with the words of your teacher par excellence: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do" (Matt 23:2). Rambam rules that he who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of violating mitzvot such as "you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand to your needy kinsman" (Deut 15:7); "you shall not stand by idly while the blood of your fellow man is shed" (Lev 19:16); and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18). He writes that redeeming a captive takes precedence over feeding the poor or clothing them (Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 8:10):
|The ransom of captives takes precedence over the sustenance of the poor and clothing them.||פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים קוֹדֵם לְפַרְנָסַת עֲנִיִּים וְלִכְסוּתָן|
|You have no commandment as great as that of the ransom of captives,
||וְאֵין לָךְ מִצְוָה רַבָּה כְּמוֹ פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים|
|for a captive falls into the category of those who are hungry and thirsty
||שֶׁהַשָּׁבוּי הֲרֵי הוּא בִּכְלַל הָרְעֵבִים וְהַצְּמֵאִים|
|and those who are naked,||וּבִכְלַל הָעֲרֻמִּים
|and stands in danger of his life.||וְעוֹמֵד בְּסַכָּנַת נְפָשׁוֹת|
|The one who hides his eyes from the ransom of a captive [lit., his ransom],||וְהַמַּעְלִים עֵינָיו מִפִּדְיוֹנוֹ|
|he transgresses against “You shall not harden your heart,||הֲרֵי זֶה עוֹבֵר עַל לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ|
|and you shall not shut your hand” [Deut 15:7];||וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ|
|and against “You shall not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” [Lev 19:16];||וְעַל לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל־דַּם רֵעֶךָ|
|and against, “he [a third party] shall not be allowed to harshly oppress him [a fellow Israelite] [lit., before your eyes]" [Lev 25:53];||וְעַל לֹא־יִרְדֶּנּוּ בְּפֶרֶךְ לְעֵינֶיךָ|
|and he has abrogated the command of “Open your hand” [Deut 15:11];||וּבִטַּל מִצְוַת פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָדְךָ|
|and the commandment of "And let your kinsmen live by your side” [Lev 25:36];||וּמִצְוַת וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ|
|“and you shall your neighbor as yourself" [Lev 19:18];||וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ|
|and “Rescue those taken off to death” [Prov 24:11];||וְהַצֵּל לְקֻחִים לַמָּוֶת|
|and many more like them.||וְהַרְבֵּה דְּבָרִים כְּאֵלּוּ|
|You have no commandment as great as that of the ransom of captives.||וְאֵין לָךְ מִצְוָה רַבָּה כְּפִדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים|
Not just Rambam, but the Sages in general built Torah on the crowns of the tips of the letters of the cited verses. They developed a policy of redeeming Jews from oppressors with an outlay of significant resources. The outcome is an inveramento, an authentic radicalization, of Torah given through Moses from Mt. Sinai.
The practical good that authentic radicalization has accomplished is difficult to overestimate. Few will question that good unless they are ignorant of, in recent times, the Soviet Jewry program or the example of Judy Feld Carr.
There is much to be said for Rambam’s hierarchy of ethical responsibilities. Maimonides himself wrote letters, discovered among the manuscripts in the Cairo Genizah, exhorting his fellow Jews to ransom captives. He collected money to that end. As David Golinkin notes in his animated defense of the redemption of Jewish captives for more than they are worth, Jews did precisely that in ancient times.
Apart from a celebrated case or two, why then do Jews and Christians invest so little in securing the release of captives? It is as if they too subscribe to a “live and let die” philosophy.
I have friends who have dedicated their lives to freeing captives of the prostitution industry, one person at a time. Their names: Jason and Lorraine. They have been at it less than a year in Austria, a hub of international prostitution. They have already helped a trafficked woman out of coerced prostitution. She is from Nigeria, is now 20 years old, and had been forced to work as a prostitute for two years. After various setbacks, at a fork in the road, as Jason recounts it, she makes a statement of faith:
She says she wants to get out of prostitution and she tells us she’s ready to testify against her trafficker. She’s scared, very scared. The police tell her she’s lying. The process is long and complicated and messy, fraught with danger and uncertainty, but she goes through with it and names the trafficker. She’s finally FREE! Now [she] is living in Vienna waiting for asylum. She needs food, a job, housing, emotional healing and everything else you can imagine a victim of trafficking would need at this point. She’s starting her life over though, and this is exciting.
For background on the challenging work of creating an anti-trafficking network (ATN), the articles in this issue of “Go East” are helpful. If anyone would like to contribute to the work of Jason and Lorraine and the ATN to which they are connected, do not hesitate to email me.
1 The amount of slipshod research in the field is, truth to be told, enormous. Do not trust what you read unless you have verified it after spending time with the primary sources. A grasp of a diverse set of interpretive approaches to the sources is also essential if missteps are to be avoided. The detailed and source-conscious research of Michelle Laughran is exemplary. A remarkable but widely neglected essay by Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Bishop, Prioress, and Bawd in the Stews of Southwark,” Speculum 75 (2000) 342-388, debunks one half-baked theory after another (pdf available on request).
2 The taxation of prostitution in pre-counter Reformation papal Rome is reminiscent of the same in Imperial Rome; for the latter, see Thomas A. J. McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).