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Home » Naso

Naso: Judaism Is Egalitarian

Submitted by on May 29, 2012 – 2:05 pmNo Comment | 886 views

Equal Access

When the words religious egalitarian are spoken they usually refer to gender equality, but I have something entirely different in mind.  I am referring to the absence of a caste system in Judaism. Jews don’t subscribe to a pyramid scheme that requires the laity to access G-d via priests and priests via bishops and bishops via the pope. Judaism is egalitarian – all have equal access to G-d.

At Sinai G-d did in fact propose a caste system. He suggested that more should be expected from the clergy than from the laity and that accordingly the clergy be accorded better access to G-d. But the nation rejected this approach and sent Moses back with a different proposal. We all want the Torah, they said, what is demanded from the clergy should be demanded from the entire nation. [1]

G-d accepted this proposal with joy and embraced this approach wholeheartedly. Every commandment is binding on every Jew and every Jew has equal access to G-d through prayer and Torah study. G-d is as available to the simpleton as He is to the scholar and as loving of the ordinary Jew as He is of the extraordinary. There is no caste system in Judaism – our system is completely egalitarian.

Meaning, Not Leisure

This places a great deal of pressure on the simple Jew who would have been excused from excessive duty to G-d on account of ignorance, yet no Jew ever asked to be excused. Not for the Jew is the facile and simple life. A Jew knows that a relationship with G-d requires investment and that such investment is well worth the return. The Jew never sought out an easy life. The Jew seeks a meaningful life.

The story is told of a Chassid who visited the court of His Rebbe (master and spiritual mentor) and observed two soup lines forming. He was told that one line was for guests, who were served a tasty soup and the other line was for regulars, who were served a simple soup. The Chassid never hesitated and joined the regular line. When he was informed that he was entitled to the better soup he remarked, should I surrender my status as a regular at the Rebbe’s court for a better bowl of soup?

Our purpose in life is not to carve out a leisurely and pleasurable existence, but to live a meaningful life. We would much rather be considered a regular in G-d’s home and not afford the better soup than have the finest luxuries and be a stranger in G-d’s home. In simple terms this means that if we have extra money we would rather support the poor or pay for a child’s tuition in J­­­­­­ewish day school than purchase tickets on a luxurious cruise and enjoy an expensive vacation.

Mentors and Guides

But this works both ways. If the lay strives to be on equal footing with the clergy, the clergy must strive to mentor, guide and teach the lay. We cannot have one side of the coin without the other.

Just as a coin is only fit when both sides are clearly imprinted and legible so is the coin of our collective spirituality only fit if both sides work in tandem; the lay striving to emulate the clergy and the clergy devoted to guiding the lay.judaism is egalitarian innerstream

This is why the Jewish nation objected, when Moses proposed to give his handwritten Torah scroll to the priestly tribe for safekeeping. They argued that if the priests had a Torah and the others did not, one day the priests might claim that only they are entitled to a relationship with G-d. Moses agreed completely and joyfully proceeded to write thirteen Torah scrolls, one for each tribe. [2]

The leadership of the nation cannot expect their followers to be inspired or enthused if they don’t reach out to them and consider them equals.[3] Only when we communicate the oneness of our nation and the fact that G-d loves us all equally, can the leaders lead and the lay follow.

From the Shoulders

This is why King Saul was ultimately unsuccessful as a monarch over the Jewish nation. The Talmud tells us that Saul was not demoted for his sins, but for his extraordinary piety. [4] Saul was appointed to the throne with no sins whatsoever; “From his shoulders and up He towered above the nation.” [5]

You can’t lead a nation if you tower over it. How can you relate to ordinary people if you can’t relate to temptation and sin? You can’t interact with them if you can’t understand them. This isn’t to say that Moses was a man of sin, G-d forbid, it is to say that despite his exalted status Moses strove to relate to ordinary Jews and understand their perspective.

Saul didn’t and was therefore replaced by David,[6] who was also pious, but much more approachable. King David was salt of the earth. When he sought out a proper location for the Holy Temple he first considered Mount Eitam, the highest peak in the vicinity of Jerusalem, but ultimately decided in favor of the Temple Mount, which was twenty-three cubits lower than Eitam. [7]

David decided that G-d’s home shouldn’t be at the highest peak though it deserves to be there. The highest peak might properly reflect our regard for G-d, but it would telegraph a message that only the most pious and learned are welcome, that you have to be at the pinnacle of devotion to have access to G-d’s home. No, said David, that is the wrong message. I will seek out a tall Mountain, but not the tallest, I want people to know that G-d is exalted, but He is also open to all.

David derived this from a verse in Deuteronomy that describes the Temple’s location as, “between the shoulders.” [8] The head is the highest point on the ox, but the strongest point, the apex of strength that pushes the yoke and turns over the soil, is between the shoulders.[9] Saul, from his shoulders and up, towered above the nation. David sought to connect with the nation from between the shoulders.

The Ark

We now understand why those who transported the Holy Ark across the desert carried in on their shoulders. [10] They didn’t hold it aloft high above their heads nor did they hold it with their arms hanging low. They carried its weight by supporting the ark’s rods on their shoulders.

The message was clear.  The Holy Ark is not the sole possession of the Priests, who worshipped near it, or the Levites, on whose shoulders it was born across the desert, though these were the noblest and highest members of the nation’s clergy. The Ark was carried on the shoulders because everyone has access to the Ark; the lay, by virtue of their sincerity and commitment and the clergy, by virtue of their scholarship and piety.



[1] Exodus 19: 3-9 and Malbim ad loc.

[2] See Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 29: 3.

[3] Equality in this context refers to equally loved by G-d. Naturally there can be no implied equality in scholarship or piety between leaders and followers for in that case there would be no clergy or laity, there would only be equals. This is in addition to the fact that such politically correct assertions are flat our denials of reality.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 22b. The Talmud goes on to say that a king must have at least several sins in his past in case he grows haughty (over the nation) he can be told to reflect on his own weakness. This essay follows the insight from Noam Elimelech (see footnote 9) that we are not talking about outright sin, but the ability to relate to sin.

[5] Samuel I 9:2. See also Samuel I 10:24.

[6] Though the Biblical narrative blames Saul’s removal on his failure to annihilate the tribe of Amalek, Noam Elimelech (see footnote 9) explains that Saul’s refusal stemmed from his extraordinary piety. He couldn’t stomach taking an innocent life even when explicitly directed to do so by G-d, which further indicates how distant Saul was from actual sin and how incapable he was of relating to ordinary people who had sinned on occasion.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Menachos 54b.

[8] Deuteronomy 33:12.

[9] See Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 33: 12, “There is no part of an ox more beautiful than its shoulders.”

[10] Numbers 7: 9 and Noam Elimelech ad loc.

 

[1] Exodus 19: 3-9 and Malbim ad loc.

[1] See Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 29: 3.

[1] Equality in this context refers to equally loved by G-d. Naturally there can be no implied equality in scholarship or piety between leaders and followers for in that case there would be no clergy or laity, there would only be equals. This is in addition to the fact that such politically correct assertions are flat our denials of reality.

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 22b. The Talmud goes on to say that a king must have at least several sins in his past in case he grows haughty (over the nation) he can be told to reflect on his own weakness. This essay follows the insight from Noam Elimelech (see footnote 9) that we are not talking about outright sin, but the ability to relate to sin.

[1] Samuel I 9:2. See also Samuel I 10:24.

[1] Though the Biblical narrative blames Saul’s removal on his failure to annihilate the tribe of Amalek, Noam Elimelech (see footnote 9) explains that Saul’s refusal stemmed from his extraordinary piety. He couldn’t stomach taking an innocent life even when explicitly directed to do so by G-d, which further indicates how distant Saul was from actual sin and how incapable he was of relating to ordinary people who had sinned on occasion.

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Menachos 54b.

[1] Deuteronomy 33:12.

[1] See Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 33: 12, “There is no part of an ox more beautiful than its shoulders.”

[1] Numbers 7: 9 and Noam Elimelech ad loc.

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