Tradition Today: The children of Adam

Judaism teaches that all human being are equal.

April 30, 2010 20:40
4 minute read.
Adam and eve.

Adam and eve 58. (photo credit: .)


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We are all angry – and rightfully so – when we see anti-Semitic pictures, speeches or writings. Television programs from Gaza, for example, depicting Jews in a degrading fashion or calling for the slaughter of Jews are particularly maddening, as is the fact that Hamas has incorporated the false allegations and horrid depiction of Jews from the Protocols of of the Elders of Zion into its charter.

We should also be angry when we read or hear defamatory remarks made by Jews about non-Jews. After all, as Hillel taught us, paraphrasing the verse “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), “That which you hate, do not do to your fellow” (Shabbat 31a). The recent publication of a book by a rabbinical leader permitting the killing of non-Jewish babies because they would grow up to kill Jews is but one example. A speech by a famous religious and political leader calling Arabs snakes is another, as is a book praising a Jew who massacred Arabs in the sacred site of the Cave of Machpela. This leads extremists among us to believe that they have the right to injure Arabs whenever they feel that they themselves have been wronged.

To paint all non-Jews as less than human is as bad as non-Jews depicting Jews in that way. The basic concept of the Torah, a concept which overrides any negative statements that may have found their way into our literature, is the value of human beings, all human beings. Humans are differentiated from all others in that they are created in the image of God. “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Therefore human life is sacred.

This is not a scientific fact but a value concept, an absolute value which leads to the idea that each individual is important, indeed unique, a world in him- or herself. “A single man was created to teach that if any man causes a single soul to perish, Scripture considers him as though he had caused an entire world to perish” (Sanhedrin 4:5).

The very first chapter of Genesis, in which one and only one human pair is created from which all of us are descended, teaches us that all human beings are equal and are truly brothers and sisters. The sages of Israel understood this very well and taught it explicitly in the same Mishna mentioned above: “A single man was first created for the sake of peace so that no man could say to another, ‘My father was greater than yours.’” Notice that all of these statements refer to “man” – human beings – and not to Jews alone. That is why the second century Tanna, Ben Azzai, taught that the most important verse in the Torah is “This is the book of the generations of man” (Gen. 5:1) (Sifra 7:4). He took issue with Rabbi Akiva, who held that the basic verse was “Love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). That verse could be thought to refer only to your fellow Jew, while Gen. 5:1 emphasizes the unity and equality of all human beings – “man” – in Hebrew adam.

Thus Judaism teaches in no uncertain terms that all human beings are equal, descendants of one common ancestor, Jew and gentile, white, black, brown and yellow. The Bible never makes Jews – Israelites – superior to other human beings. Isaiah envisions the time when all humanity will recognize the Lord. God will bless them saying, “Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria and My very own Israel” (Isaiah 19:25). The prophet Amos taught, “Are you not just like the Ethiopians to me, children of Israel – declares the Lord” (Amos 9:7).

Similarly the rabbis said that God is a great artist. God creates each person in His image and yet no one is a duplicate of any other. “Every man is unique. Therefore every man is obliged to say, ‘For my sake was the world created’” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Equality does not mean sameness. And what is true of individuals is true of nations and peoples as well. We may be different and have different roles to play in the world, but that does not make us better than anyone else.

In the words of Rabbi Milton Steinberg, “If every person incarnates God, then every person is sacred, too precious to be oppressed or degraded. Because every man embodies the divine uniquely, he is entitled to an opportunity for the expression of his individuality. Since all men manifest God, they are brothers, owing each other the duties of brotherhood.” It is therefore our duty not only to fight against those who defame us but also to combat those among us who defame others. Only thus will we create the conditions for living together in peace.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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