Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Is Equality A Jewish Value?

I. Inequality

Does the Jewish tradition see equality as an important value? When we discuss whether equality is a value within Judaism, we first need to understand what kind of equality we believe is just.

I remember a heated class discussion in, I think, seventh grade about the phrase in the US Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." It obviously is not true because some people are smarter than others, some are more talented in specific areas than others, etc. The conclusion we reached is that all people are equal in the eyes of the laws.

But is even that true? Rich people are taxed more heavily than poor; military drafts only apply (if at all) to those of a certain age; welfare is only available to the poor. While these examples seem just to us, they are not representative of equality under the law.

II. Merit-Based Equality

Philosophers have addressed this through the ages and the following presentation is based largely on chapter five of R. Sol Roth's Halakhah and Politics: The Jewish Idea of a State, although there is a strong chance that I am imprecisely, perhaps entirely incorrectly, presenting the information. Aristotle formulated the concept of equality as having to apply to those who are equal. In other words, people who are in similar circumstances should be treated the same. This is difficult because people are so different in so many ways. It is hard to precisely define how to determine that people are equal.

Instead, we can formulate equality as meaning treating people consistently based solely on their merit. Merit can be determined via a multitude of factors based on context. For example, it can include intelligence, personal achievement and even past disadvantage.

The determination, then, of whether a system is just is not based on whether it treats people unequally but whether the merit calculations are consistent and fair. This brings us to the question of whether Judaism, in particular Jewish law, uses consistent and fair merit criteria.

III. Equality in Jewish Law

Jewish law has Jews treat other Jews in a somewhat more favorable fashion, e.g. forbidding a Jew to charge interest on a loan to another Jew but permitting him to do it on a loan to a Gentile. Is there some merit one Jew exhibits in relation to another that a Gentile lacks? It could be argued that being a part of the same community, like being part of the same family, is itself a merit that justifies slightly preferential treatment. If done consistently, this can be considered a just form of differentiated equality.

In a different fashion, Jews law places certain disadvantages on an immoral person. Effectively, this causes a disparity in treatment between those who act morally (i.e. follow the commandments) and those who act immorally (i.e. violate certain severe commandments). Since this distinction is based on an understandable merit and is applied consistently, it seems like a just inequality.

Note that this discussion only deals with whether the inequality in treatment is just, whether the very existence of a difference is morally acceptable. It does not address the different standards of treatment for classes with different merits, which I think is also just but requires a separate discussion.

R. Roth concludes, "Jewish law obligates us to treat equally those who, by relevant standards, are, as a matter of fact, equal."

IV. Other Distinctions in the Jewish Tradition

What about distinctions between those of Priestly, Levite and Israelite descent? They are treated slightly differently. Priests, in particular, have restrictions on approaching dead bodies but also receive preference in many aspects (going first through a doorway, being called to the Torah first). The inequality per se is not objectionable. It is applied consistently. However, it is unclear what merit it is based on. Perhaps contemporary morality must find it objectionable. The only other option is to search for a justifiable merit on which it is based or to assert that since the tradition on which it is based is just there is a valid merit that we simply do not understand. I, for one, am willing to accept the justice of these rules and assume that there is a merit underlying them.

In respect to women's roles in public religious ritual (or the lack thereof), it is also insufficient for us to point out that Jewish tradition contains an inequality. That, in itself, is not objectionable. Since the different roles of men and women in the Jewish tradition are fairly consistent, we are left wondering whether the differentiation is based on a relevant merit. If you are willing to accept the inequalities regarding Priests without understanding the underlying merits that justify them, I suggest that you would also be well advised to apply the same faith in the Jewish tradition to this case as well.

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