Judaism: The Equality of the Jewish People
Michael LinetskyThe writer is director of the Torat Eretz Yisrael Institute (www.torateretzyisrael.org).
The equality of the individual is usually thought to be a modern concept, one which today defines a desirable society.
However, the equality of the Jewish People was already fundamental to the belief system of the Sages of the Land of Israel. Although special privileges may have been demanded for people of office or rank such as a King or a Priest, the motive was purely pragmatic and constructive. The intention was usually to allow such a person to better serve God and the Jewish People.
By the same token, in order to facilitate the greater good, privileges may have been retracted from such people. A Priest is guarded from especial grief and therefore limited in funeral attendance so that he can perform his Service properly without emotional distraction.
Whats is more is that the basic equality of the Jewish People is not just a social principle but a Divine proscription and endowment. Equality becomes prominent particularly in religious contexts when a Jew stands before his Maker.
The Mishnah in Bikkurim (3:3) describing the procession that went up to the Temple Mount to bring the Bikkurim states: “The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the temple] went out to meet them. According to the esteem of the entrants they would go forth.”
The amount and types of officials that would go out to the people bringing the Bikkurim to the Temple Mount was commensurate with the esteem of the people making ascent.
The "esteem" mentioned in this Mishnah, prima facie would appear to refer to the esteem of the individual, suggesting that Jews differ in esteem and intrinsic value. However, such a ethical system stood in opposition to the fundamental beliefs of the Sages of the Talmud of the Land of Israel.
The Sages express their astonishment at this Mishnah by posing the following question: “Is there in fact small or great among Israel?”
King David himself taught the principle of Jewish equality and specifically in the context of an event of extreme religious significance - the retrieval of the Ark of the Covenant. Michal who sees David loosing himself out of joy before the commoners as the Ark is returned chastises him:
“How honored was the King of Israel today, who was exposed today in the presence of his servant’s maidservants, as one of the boors would be exposed (II Sam. 6:20). The Talmud of the Land of Israel glosses: "Today the esteem of my father's house has become apparent." Her father King Saul acted with the extreme majesty of a King and never revealed himself.
David responds to Michal: “And with the maidservants which you mentioned, with them I shall be honored” (II Sam. 6:22). The Talmud of the Land of Israel glosses: "For they are not (amahoth) maidservants but matrons (imahoth)."
David equates the maidservants with matrons, in other words, the commoner with the ranking and thereby washes away the difference between social status.
In effect David opposes her father Saul's brand of kingship, one which does not espouse the Divine principle of the equality of the Jewish People. (Sanhedrin 2:4 12:a)