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There are really two questions here:
Question 1: Does Halacha Permit Jews to Own Slaves?
First, note that "Slavery" in the Torah generally refers to temporary indentured servitude to one's creditor. Such slavery was permitted under Jewish law. However, the treatment of Jews towards their slaves was much more humane than that of the surrounding culture, for a key element of Judaism is to remember that Jews were once slaves in Egypt (in fact, this is the central theme of the holiday of Pesach).
In Judaism, the slave was protected. Exodus 21:2-11 defines the rights of the servant. Quoting from the Hertz Penatateuch and Haftorahs:
Slavery, as permitted by the Torah was quite different from Greek and Roman Slavery, or even the cruel system in some modern countries down to our own times. In Hebrew law, the slave was not a thing, but a human being; he was not the chattel of a master who had unlimited power over him. In the Hebrew language, there is only one word for slave and servant. Brutal treatment of any slave, whether Hebrew or heathen, secures his immediate liberty.
Jewish law required that a slave could go free in the seventh year of service (Exodus 21:2), although his family would not be freed; although if he came into servitude with a wife, that wife would also be freed. The slave could, however, indicate that they perferred bondage to freedom. Every fiftieth year (the "Jubilee"), the slaves with their families would be emancipated, and property (except house property in a walled city) would revert to its original owner. (Lev XXV:8-55).
In Judaism, there is also the concept of an "Eved Canani", a non-Jewish slave, who is the property of a Jew, as is discussed in Vayikrah 25:46. This concept of slavery is nothing like slavery that occurred in America to the Negroes. The slaves were not kidnapped, but rather were purchased from themselves; i.e., they were offered a sum of money, or guaranteed shelter and food, in exchange for becoming slaves. The obligation to treat your slave humanely applies to both Jewish and non-Jewish slave, as does the obligation to make sure they have all necessary comforts, even at the expense of their master's own comfort (e.g., if there are not enough pillows for all, the master must provide his slaves with pillows before himself).
Slavery is clearly discussed in the Torah, especially in reference to Canaan, who was cursed by his grandfather Noach to be destined to be the slaves to the rest of mankind, as stated and repeated a number of times in Beraishis 9:25-27.
Is slavery moral? We live in a society where same sex marriages, partial-birth abortions, and mercy killings are considered moral by manyand perhaps even the majorityof our society. Additionally, it is considered "sport" to watch two men get together in a ring, and attempt to injure each other, and we roar in approval when one has managed to draw blood from the other and knock him unconscious. We must realize that what we consider moral or immoral is the sum total of the society in which we live. In Judaism, we've been blessed with the Torah, which tells us very clearly what is moral and immoral, and directs us to elevate ourselves above our society and accept the Torah's definition of morality. When the Torah says that theft is forbidden, this is not because society has determined that theft is forbidden, but because G-d is telling us so. Hence, it is forbidden to steal even in situations that society would not necessarily consider it theft, such as pirating software from large corporations. Additionally, when the Torah tells us that there is a Mitzvah to eradicate Amalek (evil) from the face of the earth (Shemos 17:14-16, and Devarim 25:17-19), as difficult as it is for us to swallow this, we must realize that this is the moral thing to do. This means, that when a Jewish doctor was summoned to save little Adolf Shicklegruber's life when he was an infant (later known as Adolf Hitler), rather than save his life, he should have smothered him to death (assuming that he knew that he is from Amalek). Of course, everyone there would have been horrifiedbut can you imagine how much less the world would have suffered had he realized that there is a divine code of morality that is higher than his own understanding and society's definition of what is moral and immoral! Similarly, when we find the concept of slavery in the Torah, while we certainly may and should question and try to understand, it must be with the realization that our Torah is actually the only code of morals that we have that we can be certain is correct (based on our beliefs), and we must accept the Torah whether it fits into our own preconception of what is moral and what is not.
Question 2: Did Jews own Slaves?
It is true that some Jews in the Southern U.S. before the Civil War did own slaves (alas), and there were intense antebellum debates on the subject; for example, Rabbi Morris Raphall of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York, preached a sermon in 1861 defending slavery, while David Einhorn of Baltimore, a committed abolitionist, was forced to flee town. Additionally, recent research [FABER, ELI : Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight. ; New York University Press, (1998)].suggests that Jews in the Caribbean held slaves in numbers approximately similar to non-Jews of equivalent socio-economic strata. However, Jewish Law prohibts treating a slave like chattel and abusing him or her.
A good site with information on Jewish participation in the Civil War is http://www.jewish-history.com/civilwar.htm
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>