Friday, May 4, 2012

Parsha Kedoshim: The Spiritual Goal of Furthering Equality

The Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal" and that they are endowed with the right to "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." In the First Article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the underlying premise that "all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights" is laid out. Much since the Enlightenment, equality has developed into a much-valued ideal within modern society. However, the debate of what constitutes equality can be, interestingly enough, exemplified in taxation. A regressive tax would mean that everyone pays the same dollar amount, which causes debate because not everyone could afford the same. A flat tax means that everyone pays the same percentage, which means equal proportionality. However, those who criticize the flat tax because the rich can afford to pay more would prefer a progressive form of taxation. Another facet of equality can be viewed in terms of equality of opportunity (i.e., a meritocracy), equality of outcome (i.e., socialism and Communism), or a mix of something in between.

You must be wondering at this point what all of this political theory of equality has to do with this week's Torah portion. In Leviticus 19, which starts off Parsha Kedoshim, we come across a declaration that "you [the Israelites] shall be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy," followed by a list of commandments that is considered by many to be the crux of what is considered Jewish holiness. As Dr. Steven Kepnes points out, holiness is our spirituality. Chatam Sofer states that Leviticus 19 shows how we are involved within community, and he uses the text proof of Leviticus 19:1 that because G-d was speaking not just to Moses, but to the entire community at the time, the level of holiness can be attained by all members of Israel.  Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern-day Mussar movement, on the other hand, brings a polemic that holiness is not meant to be found in heaven, but spirituality and holiness is to be found right here on earth that is oriented between relations with other human beings.

That still doesn't answer the question of what holiness has to do with equality, so where's the connection?

We live in a world of inequalities, whether those inequalities have to do with socio-economic class, gender, race, sexual orientation, height or weight differentials, intelligence, the list goes on. In Jewish life, there are even certain inequalities, including those between rabbi and congregation, the twelve tribes of Israel (i.e., Kohanim and Levi'im versus everyone else), between the Jew and non-Jew, and between parent and child. For the former three, the differences are in terms of differences of responsibility (e.g., the Jew is not superior to the non-Jew, but rather that the Jew is different because that Jew has additional responsibilities that the non-Jew does not have), whereas the latter is a true difference in how the child treats their parent, although we have to remember that every parent has to follow the same laws because they are also someone's child. Whether in religious or secular life, we have to contend with the reality that people are different from one another. When the Declaration said that "all men are created equal," it meant that each individual is created "in His Image,"and as the UN Declaration states, "we are created with equality in dignity." Let's take a look to see what that means in context of Leviticus 19 in as chronological of an order as possible, especially in light of what the Chatam Sofer and Israel Salanter have to say about Leviticus 19:

  • Leviticus 19:2 talks about revering one's mother and father. To re-iterate, although a hierarchy is established between parent and child, all children, including those who are parents themselves, still have to show reverence to their parents.
  • Leviticus 19:9 says that when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall leave the edges of your field to the poor. In the Levitical context [of an agricultural society], poor people did not even have a field in which they can grow food. In modern-day terms, this would apply to those who are exceptionally poor (e..g, those who are homeless). Judaism teaches us that property rights are not 100% absolute, and that part of what we earn goes to help out the poor.
  • Leviticus 19:11, on the other hand, reminds us not to steal because property rights are nevertheless a relatively solid concept in Judaism. Although Judaism doesn't advocate absolute materialism, it does tie property rights to the dignity of man, and taking from the individual defames the individual's G-dliness.
  • Leviticus 19:13 first states that you cannot cheat your fellow man, which goes along a similar vain with Leviticus 19:35 that says you shall use correct scales, measurements, and weights. The idea here is to eliminate information asymmetry.
  • Leviticus 19:13 continues with the idea that a worker's wage shall not remain with you [the employer] overnight until morning. Why? 1) The employer typically has the advantage over the employee. 2) The livelihood of the employee is dependent on that paycheck. This law is to eliminate any potential abuses by employers. 
  • Leviticus 19:14, you shall not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Although these individuals have lost one of their five senses, we should not actively make the inequality worse, but rather help them in providing more equal opportunity to successfully function in society.
  • Leviticus 19:15 states that you will not commit a perversion in justice by favoring the poor (argumentum ad lazarum) lazy or honoring the rich (argumentum ad crumenam). The purpose is that justice be just, not corrupted by biases. In short, we are meant to be treated equal under the law. 
  • Leviticus 19:18, a passage that is loved by many, tells us to "love your neighbor as yourself," as well as Leviticus 19:33, which states that we shall "love the stranger as you love yourself." The reason why these verses are vital is because they are the crux of human relations, and once again goes to show that regardless of interpretation, we are commanded to love Jews as well as non-Jews.
Although there are more verses that can be elucidated, I want to end with the following. The world has inequalities, but we are here to mend those inequalities with our fellow human beings as much as possible. To pursue equality and help others is holiness. 

שבת שלום!

No comments:

Post a Comment