Question:

I was learning hilchos avadim in the Rambam and now I have the following question: how could it be that the Torah is concerned for tzar ba’alei chaim, but when it comes to an actual human (who keeps mitzvos like nashim) if the rav wants to hurt him in a way that is not galui, he can do it with impunity?  I know that the last halacha there, the Rambam says it’s midas chassidus to not do it, but still…

Answer:

The issur of tzar ba’alei chaim is not “animal rights, Jewish style.” All it means is that without a purpose that serves the needs of the human we can not cause needless pain to animals, that’s it. Ultimately, we look to this as an idea that the creation is here to serve man. That means animals do not have rights. We have an obligation to limit our use of creation to purposeful and ultimately beneficial needs.

A slave, the likes of which we are speaking about there in hilchos avadim, is in a somewhat similar situation (though there are distinct differences in the laws of how we must deal with slaves, which are very, very different than animals). If the master sees the need, within the framework of the upkeep of his affairs and efforts, to inflict some form of punishment to his slave there is a certain, limited framework within which he may do that. Clearly, it is not parallel to animals entirely, since he can’t inflict such a punishment in a place where it will remain constantly visible on the slave’s body.

As for the very fact that the Torah tolerates slavery, that is a much broader discussion. Certainly, the Torah doesn’t demand it. Without some way of organizing the elements of the population that are drawn to immorality and dependency into some sort of organized, constructive input, society will have terrible social problems. Slavery as far as the Torah was concerned was never racially discriminatory. Furthermore, there is a subsection within the concept of slavery called “indentured servitude” which also came to address these social issues. Who is bold enough to contend that society has advanced to the point where these issues no longer exist or that the current solutions are more effective?