Question. In the eyes of God, do we all have equal rights?
Answer. Some countries have a Bill of Rights that spells out people’s entitlements. But many of us claim all sorts of extras – not just free medicine, free education and free handouts, but special status, influence and regard. In some cases there is an actual right which was won after a long struggle; in others there is a broad consensus, such as that nations are entitled to self-determination; in others the “rights” are wishful thinking.
The question of equal rights raises the deeper question of equal status. Are we all equally important in the eyes of God, i.e. in a philosophical sense?
The answer has nothing to do with our size (“I’m bigger than you, therefore I’m worth more”), with our colour (“I’m white, therefore I’m superior”), with our voice (“I can shout louder, therefore I matter more”), with our heredity (“My father was a great man, therefore I’m special”). Nor does it depend on how much we have in the bank, how many cars we have, how much social standing or political influence we possess.
A person’s status is intrinsic to their personness. The Tosefta (Sanhedrin chapter 8) says that Adam was created alone so that no-one could claim that they had a better measure of natural endowment. Psalm 145 teaches that God’s mercies extend over all His creatures. The Tanchuma to Deut. 29:9 says that no-one is better just because they’re male, female, young, old, of high rank or lowly. The prophets say, “Has not one Father created us all?” (Mal. 2:10).
Yes, I know that this is not always how it works in a diverse and often defective world, but the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God remains the ideal.
Question. What does Judaism think of “yes men”?
Answer. Leo Baeck used to say that Jews were eternal protestants – not with a capital P, in the Christian sense of a non-Catholic, but with a small “p”, indicating that we were never prepared to go along with intolerable situations without voicing our objections.
It has been said that the Jewish calling “is to destroy idols. In world intellectual history, insofar as Jewish thought is distinctive, it is distinguished by its non-conformity.”
This was never a recipe for popularity. The fact that we were different often brought us problems, but at least we could live with our conscience and our God.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.