Equal Rights

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Equality is a modern topic, particularly even if not exclusively American. However, modern topics may also have been important an ancient times. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the rabbinic concordance Otzar Ma’amarei Chazal by J.D. Eisenstein, published in 1922 in New York, contains an entry for “equal rights” (shivyon zekhuyos) that cites rabbinic sources emphasizing this value.

Eisenstein quotes the Tosefta (Sanhedrin ch. 8) that Adam was created alone so that the righteous cannot claim that they (alone) are descended from someone righteous nor the wicked claim they come from someone wicked. No one can say that their ancestor is better than another’s. Rather, we are all descended from the same person and presumably, therefore, equal.

The Torah (Deut. 29:9) lists the people listening to Moshe’s speech — “Your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers , with all the men of Israel.” The Midrash Tanchuma infers from the list that all people — the elders, officers, men of Israel, etc. — are equal before Moshe. Not just adult men, continues the midrash, but also the women and children. God is merciful on all His creatures and does not pick favorites.

The midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 48:1) tells how R. Yossi’s wife was once yelling at her maid. R. Yossi scolded her that she should not do so, as it says (Job 31:13): “If I did despise the cause of my manservant or of my maidservant.” Eisenstein explains in a footnote that even servants have equal rights.

The midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Torah, no. 76) quotes God telling Moshe that He does not show favoritism among humans. Neither, the midrash says, between Jew and gentile nor between man and woman. Any person who performs a mitzvah receives the appropriate reward.

And finally, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 19a) describes the advice given to Jews when the gentile government forbade learning Torah, circumcising babies and observing Shabbos. They were told to protest in the streets and cry out: “For God’s sake! Are we not your brothers? Are we not children of the one father and mother? Why are we different from every nation that you decree against us?” The government annulled the decree and the sages declared that day a holiday.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

6 comments

  1. Very nice! Reminds me of the writing of Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen a”h and his book Letters to My (Progressive) Father, where, among other things, he bring proofs from Torah sources about how we are supposed to view non-Jews in a positive and not a negative way.

  2. Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen a”h (f/k/a Jeff Oboler) was an elementary school classmate of mine. About two years ago we had a long telephone chat in connection with our class’s 50th reunion. That reconnection impelled me to attend his shloshim commemoration which was both extremely informative and moving.

  3. GIL:

    of all eisenstein’s volumes how did you get to this one and davka come across that entry?

    (as far equal rights, of course einsentein was one of the masses who wrote for the masses)

  4. P. 405. Unfortunately I only had internet access via Blackberry yesterday so I couldn’t find the link to include in this post.

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=2932&st=&pgnum=405&hilite=

  5. then where are the sources that impel certain approaches to Judaism to see the Jewish soul as qualitatively different and better than the non-Jewish soul? I know one can find this as far back – at least – as R. Yehuda Ha-Levi, but is it in the Tanach? Mishna? Gemara?

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