Thursday, August 06, 2009

Created Equal

I'm often amazed when I learn after the fact who it was that I was sitting near in a shul or shmoozing with at a kiddush. Sometimes it turns out to be a multi-millionaire, sometimes a prominent communal leader, sometimes a working father struggling to earn a living, and sometimes an impoverished person. And I had no idea. In my experience, the Jewish community tends to do a pretty good job of breaking down class barriers.

Granted, there are neighborhoods where only the rich can afford to live or only the poor are stuck living. And there are some shuls that are snobby. But they seem to be unusual. In general, I've found that most shuls have a healthy mix of people from different economic circumstances. Moreover, unless you are someone who is quite conscious of these things, there is little way of knowing who is who. All men come to shul in a suit and -- particularly in yeshivish and chassidish circles -- many rich men do not wear suits that are any fancier than everyone else's. Wherever there is some sort of uniform, that relative uniformity of attire irons out economic differences. You really have to be attuned to these things to tell who is rich and who is not.

Click here for moreAnd even if you can tell, most people don't care. I remember in one shul where I was a regular, there was one boy who always came to shul with suit pants that were totally tattered on the bottom. It was only after I saw them that I thought about it and realized that, based on what his father does for a living and the number of kids in the family, they are just getting by -- at best. After I noticed it, I kept a lookout to see if anyone treated that family any differently. I never saw anything.

Maybe it's just because I don't care about such things that I think it is the general attitude. But my impression is that Judaism allows for a good deal of interaction between economic classes and there is quite a bit of equality. Not total equality -- I have never been and probably will never be honored at a major organization's dinner. I can't bring them the money they need. Although, frankly, I don't really want to be honored anyway. There is no question that money brings privileges. And if your child is causing problems at school and is in danger of being expelled, money goes a long way. Nevertheless, there is still a surprisingly good deal of equality. I can walk into any shul in Brooklyn and (assuming I'm wearing the right kind of yarmulka or hat) be treated as an equal regardless of how much money I have. Economic status does not determine social status, even if it sometimes affects it to a degree.

I had this in mind as I read R. Joshua Berman's recent book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought. R. Berman, a Bible professor (technically - lecturer) at Bar Ilan University, wrote a book of inter-disciplinary scholarship, analyzing the Bible from the perspective of political theory. The conclusion he reached is that the Bible promotes an approach that is remarkably egalitarian in terms of people of different legal and economic statuses. The law applies to everyone, is accessible to everyone, and attempts to avoid dramatic economic imbalances without resorting to socialism. The result is a tradition that has impacted the Jewish community to the extent that even in non-legal ways, there is a remarkable egalitarianism.

Some of his ideas were taken from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and developed further. Like R. Sacks, R. Berman argues that the Bible was unique in the ancient world and sharply deviated from the pagan and Greek approaches in creating an egalitarian worldview that forms the basis of modern Western civilization.

The book is a fascinating and relatively easy read. R. Berman is the rare academic who is able to explain complex ideas in accessible language, so his academic study is appropriate for scholars and laypeople alike. This is particularly important for a book of this type because it introduces philosophical and political ideas into the framework of a biblical study. Readers from any of these disciplines need to be treated like novices of the other subjects. Because of this, those of us who are not scholars in any of the subject matters can still benefit from the author's prodigious scholarship.

(As an aside, I've seen some who regard R. Berman's book to be an argument in favor of single (Divine) authorship of the Pentateuch. It is not. R. Berman sidesteps the issue, intentionally I am sure so as to maintain the academic validity of his book. His arguments work equally well whether you believe that the Torah was given by God to Moshe or was compiled from multiple sources. If you don't believe me, see the first review on his website: link.)

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