The Purchase of His Money: Slavery and the Ethics of Jewish Marriage


Gail Labovitz


Two types of owned human beings appear regularly in rabbinic literature: the wife and the slave. Thinking of marriage as a purchase and women as ownable allowed rabbis to consider marriage, gender relations, and sexuality in terms of the legalities of property. "Free" wives and slaves were of course not of the same status at the time when this literature developed, but the legal cores of the two transactions-buying a slave and taking a wife-are highly similar. Rabbinical works, dating as far back as the beginning of the third century CE, are the foundation of practices observed by significant segments of Jewish communities to this day. These texts, along with the laws and ideas they expound, often have a vote, if not a veto, in discussions of Jewish ethics and practice. Recognizing the associations between marriage and slavery in rabbinic literature forces us to ask unsettling questions about Jewish traditions, laws, and practices today. Until we confront these questions, and reconfigure Jewish marriage on a model that does not involve metaphors of ownership, slavery will continue to exert its legacy on Jewish women. Many of us may find it easier to accept the authority of these traditions (even as we might subject them to reinterpretation) than to imagine what we might put in their place that would still allow us to feel and act "authentically" Jewish. However, feminist ethics of sexuality and relationship demand of us no less than our best effort.