The Biblical and Rabbinic origins of an important western value

There are differing definitions of equality today. In some circles it is equality of opportunity, which can mean affirmative action quotas; to others, quotas may mean inequality, as it might be felt that it discriminates against others.
The Hebrew Bible is not egalitarian in any 21st century meaning of the word.  But then again, the progressive 19th-century idea of universal male suffrage would not stand the test of 21st-century equality either.
Equality then is also a relative term, depending on time and place. What I intend to explore briefly here is the (perhaps surprising) notion that the seeds of egalitarianism are to be found in the ancient Hebrew Bible.
The idea that every human life is valuable, and that one is not more important than another, begins at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, with the creation story. While the animals were all created in the plural, the only man is created as one individual. On this, the Rabbis of the Talmud comment:
“Therefore man was created as one individual; to teach…that no one should say to his fellow man ‘my ancestors were greater than yours.” (Mishna Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5)
Inequality was the norm in ancient societies, and not only on the level of empires and Pharaohs. In his book Created Equal, Prof. Joshua Berman describes how Aristotle wrote in his Politics that justice required that “equals be treated as equals and unequals as unequals.” (Berman, p.6)
Inequality based on birth was the norm even among siblings: primogeniture meant that the eldest son inherited the land, even into medieval and early modern times. The eldest son was given superior status.
Yet the Hebrew Bible upends this concept consistently. Time and again in the stories of the Bible, the eldest son is rejected in favor of a younger one. This is true for all of the “founding fathers” of Judaism: Ishmael is rejected while Isaac is accepted; Esau is rejected, while Jacob is accepted. Of Jacob’s twelve sons, Reuben is clearly displaced by Judah and Joseph. Later, Moses is to lead the people, despite the fact that he is the youngest of three children.
Most dramatically, when Samuel is instructed by God to go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint a new king, he instinctively goes to the firstborn, and is told by God, “not him!” He then goes to the second son, and is told the same, and on and on until he finally comes to the youngest, the 7th son, a boy by the name of David. Samuel is told that he, the youngest, is the one who will be the new king.
The rejection of primogeniture so many times in the Hebrew Bible sends a clear message of meritocracy. Birth order in the family, or birth to a particular family, is not as important as an individual’s personal qualities. This was revolutionary in the ancient world, and even for the medieval world. It is only with the Enlightenment that such ideas, born in the Hebrew Bible, become widespread in the West, and perhaps because of the “Biblical Century” (as the 17th c. has been called) where interest in and study of the Hebrew Bible became much more widespread.
The Hebrew Bible goes much further in promoting equality in limiting the power of the elites and in legislating economic behavior.  Further, in fact, than almost any democratic society today.
Privileged groups in ancient Israel were limited in a way quite unusual in society until very recent times. For example, the Priests were given no land, no patrimony, in a society where land was the key to wealth. (This stands in contrast to Ancient Egypt: the Hebrew Bible records that Joseph was able to garner all the lands of Egypt from the farmers during the famine, EXCEPT for the lands of the priests, which they retained.)
The power of the Priests in any ancient society also lay in their control of the cult. Only they knew what to do and were permitted to do it. However, the Hebrew Bible reduces that power to a degree by making public all the laws of the sacrifices (especially in Leviticus). The Bible and the rabbis insist that these passages be learned by all the people, alongside the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The priestly monopoly on knowledge of the cult is absent in Ancient Israel.
In fact, the Hebrew Bible calls the all the Jews “A Kingdom of Priests.”
The power of the monarch in the Torah is limited as well, particularly in the realms of the military, the economy, and the harem. Moreover, the Torah proclaims that the king must write a Scroll of the Torah himself, to which he is bound, as is every person in Ancient Israel.
However, the Hebrew Bible goes even farther than that.
Prof. Berman describes how the rigid hierarchies of the ancient Near East were bolstered by the religious support. The heavenly order was portrayed as paralleling the earthly order. Just as the king in Mesopotamia presided over a hierarchy of officials, so the Gods had a parallel king and then a pantheon of lesser gods.
In contrast, he writes, the theology of covenant in the Torah parallels suzerainty treaties of the time, and suggests that the covenant in Israel is essentially a treaty not only with its king, or with its priests, but between a sovereign king, God, and a subordinate king, the entire people of Israel.
“Israel as a collective whole attain the status of a subordinate king…hierarchy is eschewed as every man in Israel becomes endowed with this status as well.” (Berman, p. 9)
“The stories in the Pentateuch place the entire nation at center stage – as opposed to some divinely elected monarch – in a way not evinced anywhere else in the ancient Near East.” (Berman, p. 12)
Unlike ancient Near Eastern societies, the covenant’s message is not one of social stratification and hierarchy, but a leveling one in which the entire people (including their leaders) are bound to the same agreement as the lowliest Israelite peasant.
Over and above legal and social equality, the Torah commands that there should also be economic equality.
First, let us look at the nature of the Hebrew slave. Slavery was the basis of the agricultural economy in much of the world not only in ancient times but even in the American South until 1863! Radical for its time, the Hebrew Bible mandated the freeing of slaves every seventh or sabbatical year.  This meant that the cycle of slavery would be broken, and not passed on from one generation to the next – at worst, it would be only a short episode in a person’s life.
Moreover, the slave is not to be released empty-handed, but rather be given gifts of animals and agricultural goods so that he can begin life as a free man and not be catapulted back into slavery.
But what if a slave did not want to go free?
“Now it shall be if he says to you: ‘I will not go out from beside you, for I love you and your household’ – for it goes well for him beside you-you are to take a piercing tool and are to put it through his ear, into the door, and he shall be made your serf forever; even to your maid you are to do so. You are not to let it be hard in your eyes when you send him free, at liberty, from beside you…” (Deuteronomy 15: 16-18)
The ritual of the piercing of the ear of one who chooses to remain a slave recalls the Code of Hammurabi.  A runaway slave, according to the code, is to have his ear cut off.
It is not by chance that the Hebrew Bible uses that same part of the human anatomy, but to teach the exact opposite lesson: rather than losing an ear because one desires freedom, the ear is pierced of the slave who does NOT want to go free!
The Hebrew Bible goes even further to weaken the institution of slavery. Hebrew slavery was a result of the indebtedness of a farmer. In order to curtail the incidence of slavery, the Torah provides not only a pound of cure in releasing slaves but an ounce of prevention so that people will be less likely to fall into slavery:
“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.”   (Deuteronomy 15:1)
It is hard for us to imagine, even today, such a leveling decree that would take the poor out of debt and break the cycle of poverty every 7 years.
But perhaps most radical of all in creating economic equality was the Jubilee year.
“You are to hallow the year, the fiftieth year, proclaiming liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants; it shall be Homebringing for you, you are to return, each man to his holding…” (Leviticus 25:10)
As some of you know, these words (“Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof”) are inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, reflecting the deep imprint the Hebrew Bible had on 18th c. American revolutionaries. (Benjamin Franklin proposed that the seal of the new United States depict the splitting of the Red Sea!)
The Jubilee return to one’s initial landholding was a “reset” placed on growing economic inequalities. In an economy dominated by agriculture, the land was the most valuable commodity.  The Jubilee meant that land could be accumulated for a maximum of 50 years, and then had to return to the status quo ante, insuring that economic inequalities would be held in check.
Such radical notions of economic equality do not exist even in the most progressive societies in the modern world, where growing inequalities of income are more and more of an issue.
It is sometimes difficult in our secular age to fully comprehend the profound impact that religion has had on the most basic values of the contemporary West. So many people tend to view religion as confined to Church, synagogue, or Mosque. What is often lacking is the understanding that religion is not only about worship; in fact, religions contain entire approaches to life that impact our very view of the world.


(Please note: This is an excerpt from a lecture entitled “The Biblical and Rabbinic Origins of Western Values,” delivered at the OSI conference in Budapest on Dec. 1, 2017.)

Dr. David Berstein

S.A in Jewish Culture at OSI and Dean, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and USA/Israel.