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.
(Reposted from 2011)