Sunday, May 1, 2011

All Men Are Not Equal

Does Judaism rate all people as being equal? Many people - especially kiruv apologists - would say yes. And that might also be the impression that one receives from the laws concerning how judges must treat everyone equally.

But careful consideration reveals that this is clearly not the case. Judaism does not consider people as being equal in either their opportunities or their importance.

Personally, I do not find the notion of unequal opportunities to be at all offensive. It seems self-evident that there are inequalities in all spheres. Just as in the realm of physical and material opportunities, there are inequalities, so too in the religious realm. A Yisrael does not have the same opportunities as a Kohein. And men and women likewise do not have the same opportunities - not in the biological realm, and not in the religious realm.

But what I really want to focus on is the concept of inequality in importance - in the value of someone's life. This is not the same as the issue of a person's accomplishments. Rather, I am discussing the value of someone's life in this world to God and/or to society.

Again, it seems self-evident that people's lives are not equally important. The life of someone stranded forever on a desert island is less important than the life of someone who plays an important role in the lives of many other people. The life of a national leader is more important than the life of a regular person.

Now, there is a well-known prohibition against choosing to save one's own life at the expense of the life of another person. As the Gemara phrases it: "Who says that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder." But this should not be misconstrued to mean that all lives are equally important. It does not say that all blood is equally red! Rather, the point is that we are not entitled to judge whose life is more important. A further aspect of this ruling is that a person is not allowed to personally decide that his own life is more important than that of someone else. In other words, although one person's life may well be more important than that of another person, there are two impediments to using that to judge that one can save one's own life at another's expense: First of all, that we limited mortals are not in a position to determine whose life is more important; and second, that determining one's own life to be more important than that of others is obviously something far too dangerous to ever permit.

But what about if we remove the second factor, by setting up a case where someone chooses to sacrifice his own life to save that of another? Is a person allowed to decide that someone else's life is more important than his own? That depends upon the circumstances, and is also subject to dispute.

To be continued, on another occasion...

25 comments:

  1. Just like we cannot know the worth of a particular mitzvah, we cannot judge the worth of a particular parson. As the mishnah in Avos says, there ain't nobody what doesn't get his 15 minutes of importance (my translation my might be a wee bit off).
    Just as we have to treat each mitzvah as holy and important, we should extend such respect to other folks as well and leave the judging of an individual's worth to God.

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  2. Rabbi Slifkin,
    Are you familiar with Janus Korzcak and his self-sacrifice for the Jewish orphans in his charge? Was it in fact permitted for him to essentially give up his life for their comfort? (Note that this is far more extreme than giving up your life for someone else's.)

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  3. You really know how to reinterpret. And it's unnecessary here. If you have something you think on logical grounds about people's inherent worth that's fine and our tradition can speak from God's perspective and in terms of spiritual psychology and His reasons behind things that logic cannot uncover.

    "Who says your blood is redder?" really means we have no means to say one is more worthy inherently than another even in principle at least from the standpoint of Halacha. If our standing were inherent there would be a way to see otherwise.

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  4. http://www.aish.com/tp/i/ky/48952261.html

    "Are All Men Created Equal? " from Aish, the Kiruv people.

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  5. Pshita! All people are not created equal, but they all have equal human rights. This is what Chazal mean by 'Who says your blood is redder?"

    Thysses, yes he was. He didn't give up his life for their 'comfort'. He inspired the children to live and die with dignity. They could not have done it on their own.

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  6. Just like we cannot know the worth of a particular mitzvah, we cannot judge the worth of a particular parson.

    I'm not sure that I agree with that; some Anglican clerics are definitely superior to others. But I agree that, in general, we cannot judge the worth of a particular pErson.

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  7. Thysses - I'm not familiar with that case, but I will be discussing similar such ideas.

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  8. All people are not created equal, but they all have equal human rights.

    Not in all areas.

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  9. Rabbi Slifkin, I am surprised that you haven't heard about Janus Korzcak. He is a true hero of the holocaust. There are books and poems written about him.

    I've read the Aish article. No comment. For a completely original and the best commentary on the subject discussed in that article please see Avraham Burg's 'Blshon Bnei Adam' on parshas Kdoishim. Awesome!

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  10. 'Not in all areas.'

    Please explain.

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  11. I already explained. Please see the post! Yisraelim do not have the same religious rights as Kohanim. Women do not have the same religious rights as men.

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  12. Of course there are differences in religious obligations and opportunities. We Jews cannot receive communion, the Gentiles cannot put on a talis. I am talking about human rights such as: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Is there a difference here between a Kohen Godol, a mamzer or a Palestinian Arab?

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  13. R' Slifkin,

    Are you talking only about the worth of a Jew vs. the worth of another Jew or also the worth of a Jew vs. the worth of a non-Jew from a Halachik standpoint? The second point is much more interesting to me.

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  14. see tzitz eliezer 18:1:9 for a summary of sources on deciding your life is less valuable, also mishne halachot 9 :349 and 9:384

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  15. The simple understanding of the prohibition of commiting suicide (assuming it's forbiden), and the classical understanding of אין אדם משים עצמו רשע are that a person cannot devalue himself.
    Mincahs chinuch (i can't recall where) has a lot on these issues.

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  16. Carol, while I feel like you do it is clear that Judaism does not value all humanoid lives equally. Rambam explicitly forbids saving the life of an idolater or providing them any medical treatment ( unless doing so would have negative repercussions for you personally or the Jewish community at large ). He allows violating the Sabbath to save the life of a Jew, and maybe if you read it a certain way to save the life of a Noachide, but that's not completely clear to me from my reading of MT. The reason I use the word humanoid and not humans is because it's not even clear ( at least to me ) what was considered "human" in ancient Jewish thought. Was an idolater human? Or did they only gain a soul and become "human" when they converted to monotheism? While the normative / mainstream Jewish view has evolved over the past few hundred years you have to acknowledge that the view that all people's lives have more or less equal value is a modern phenomenon.

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  17. This question is of course relevant concerning the hero at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. There was a discussion about this on Hirhurim where someone cited a teshuvah by R. Sternbuch in which he mentions approvingly, it seems, of the Belzer Rebbe's shamash who was prepared to give up his life for his rebbe. There's a related story concerning a chasid of the Shpoler Zeide as well.

    (To present the other side, R. Meisels discusses a similar case that presented itself to him during the Holocaust. He felt it was asur.)

    Regarding all men being equal: I think you're setting up a straw man of sorts. I don't think Thomas Jefferson would disagree with anything you wrote in this post.

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  18. "Personally, I do not find the notion of unequal opportunities to be at all offensive. It seems self-evident that there are inequalities in all spheres. Just as in the realm of physical and material opportunities, there are inequalities, so too in the religious realm. A Yisrael does not have the same opportunities as a Kohein. And men and women likewise do not have the same opportunities - not in the biological realm, and not in the religious realm."

    Yet it is also self-evident that many inequalities between people--in their relative social importance or in their access to educational and political opportunities--are the results of social factors.

    I personally do find it offensive that opportunities for one arbitrarily defined class should continue to be denied to another arbitrarily defined class. I find it offensive that we cannot see why it is preferable today to reject the ways of denial.

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  19. 1 - I remember hearing about an example which went something like this. You and a friend got lost in the desert, you personally were in posset ion of water, but the water you had could only sustain one life. You are required (halachically) to keep the water for yourself. You are not allowed to share it with your friend (in which case you would both die). And you are not allowed to give it all to your friend, in which case you would die.

    2 - What of the following hierarchy?

    Yehudi
    Medaber
    Chai
    Tzomei'ach
    Domeim

    Is there a practical application to this hierarchy? It has been taught to boys and girls in yeshivos and bais yaakovs (in New York) for 30+ years (since I and my brothers were in school). (I’m sure Ba’alei Teshuva aren’t told that their kids will come home from school one day with these kinds of divrei Torah.)

    3 - YY – I would be very curious to learn about the historical point in time suicide was halachically determined to be prohibited. IIRC there are a number of people who “fell on their swords” in battle in Nach, so as not to be captured by the enemy or suffer shame. I always wondered about this.

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  20. R' Slifkin,

    Does chazal's statement about 'one who saves a life it is if they safe an entire world' have any bearing on this discussion?

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  21. Robert, I think every human being is considered equally human in the ancient Jewish thought. The negative statements about Gentiles reflect their then current cultural state and their relationship with the Jews, not their innate inferiority. Shadal on last weeks parsha, when commenting on the commandment to love a stranger, says that the reason for it was because the custom in the ancient world was to treat strangers in inferior manner. We are all descendants of Adam Harisdhon, no? Normative / mainstream Jewish view doesn't necessarily reflect the Torah view in everything.

    Michapeset, I think BT get more exposure to Kuzari then FFB. Their is no reason to be surprised by kids coming home from school with these ideas. In Mercaz Harav circles Kuzari is the foundation of their haskofah. The idea you mention is R. Yehuda HaLevi's own chidush. It's not in the Torah. I go for humanism and the school goes for national superiority; both are present in our Rabbinical tradition. People are insecure and choose the latter. One can freely disagree. This is not a terrible problem.

    The bottle in a desert IS a problem. IIRC R.Akiva held that they should share. I think you cannot legislate behavior in this type of situations. This is a long discussion and I am not starting it here. My maine idea is this: when stuck in a desert or in a holocaust, focus on living and dying as the best human being you can possibly be, not on trying to survive at all cost. Janush Korcak did it and will live forever as an inspiration in the memory of humanity.

    Can someone think of a single individual who became a hero after consulting a Daas Torah? I don't think there are any. I think this is the idea of 'kannoim poigim bo'. Everyone is free to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. However, if you ask a shailah we are going to get all analytical and pilpulistic until we really are not sure of anything anymore. Learning is great, but when it comes to action - just do it!

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  22. [I]f you ask a shailah we are going to get all analytical and pilpulistic until we really are not sure of anything anymore. Learning is great, but when it comes to action - just do it!

    Carol: Do you have a source for this?

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  23. Kannoim poigim bo. It's like love, if you are asking a rabbi if you should - it's not love.

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  24. No matter what the actual question is (Jew vs. Jew, Jew vs. Gentile, Kohan vs. Israel, Lakers vs. Celtics, etc.) there are some situations where the decision is clearly going to run right up against basic humanity.

    Requiring a person to sacrifice his life for a stranger is clearly not going to fly. It may or may not be admirable for someone to do so, but saying "You need to get out of the way and die for that guy's sake" isn't going to cut any ice.

    Contrariwise, telling a mother to put the life of another ahead of her child? Not happening if she is morally qualified to be a parent.

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  25. Carol,

    I'm not talking about negative statements, I'm talking about halacha. Are you claiming that these negative halachot ( and statements ) didn't exist prior to galut and if so on what basis do you say that? I'm open to the idea, but what's your proof? My understanding is that even someone like the Meriri basically got around these things by claiming that 1) idolaters only refers to the ancient idolaters like the Canaanites or Egyptians, and 2) by claiming that basically everyone alive in his time qualified as a Noachide. As much as I like his approach, the fact is that at least as far as I know it was historically unique. But even accepting the Meiri's position as valid, even Noachides are basically second class citizens and suffer certain discriminatory rules from what I've heard. I love the Meiri's approach, and that of people like Rav. Risken and Rabbi Benamozagh, but I'm also interested in objectively and honestly understanding the reality of our history.

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