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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...