The Equality Puzzle, Part 1

“For all that You created to revive the soul of all that live…” Tosafos – For example, apples. – 37a

One motza’ei Shabbos, one of the chassidim of R’ Aharon Karliner came to visit him. During their conversation, the gabai brought a plate of fruit before them. The Rebbe picked up an apple, and fervently recited the appropriate brochah, thanking Hashem for the fruit of the trees, and he cut off a slice. He then proceeded to eat the apple.

The chossid sat across the table from the Rebbe, watching his every move. He had always thought of the rebbe as akin to one of the angels, and yet, here was his rebbe, eating a mundane apple just like everyone else would. For a fleeting moment, a thought flashed through the mind of the chossid, “We both eat apples, and we both recite brachos. True, the rebbe recites the brochah with a bit more concentration than I do, but we are both essentially the same.”

The rebbe was quick to notice the subtle change of demeanor from reverence to careful appraisal, and he said to his guest, “Tell me, what indeed is the difference between you and me? I eat apples, and you eat apples. I recite blessings, and you recite blessings. So how are we different?”

“I was just wondering the same thing,” the chossid admitted, somewhat startled and embarrassed.

“I’ll tell you,” the rebbe said. “When I get up in the morning, I look around and see all the beautiful things Hashem has created. I am overwhelmed with the splendor of creation, and the mastery of the universe. I am enthralled and I crave to praise Hashem, but I know that it is forbidden to say Hashem’s name in vain. So, I reach for an apple, which gives me the opportunity to praise Hashem as I say a brochah.

“But when you arise in the morning, the first thing you think is that you are hungry, and you want to eat an apple. You cannot eat it without saying a brochah, so you do so to allow yourself to eat. You say your brachos in order to eat, but I eat in order to say a brochah and to talk to Hashem.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Eating to Bless”
Berachos 37

Part 1 in a four-part series.

I mentioned just the other day that we believers who grew up in the west, particularly in the United States, seem to be all about our “rights” and all about “equality.” We have a philosophy that is even built into our Declaration of Independence (although at the time this document was written, it really only applied to white landowners), so it is difficult to even conceive of essential “inequalities” between different groups of human beings unless we invoke the terms “racism” or “bigotry.”

But is inequality between peoples true in terms of the Bible’s intent and more importantly, is it true in terms of God’s intent for humanity? On the surface, it would seem the answer is “no.”

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. –Galatians 3:27-29 (ESV)

It would seem then, that the Christian ideal is for anyone who has been “baptized into Christ,” there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female.” We indeed are all equal before the throne of our King and no one is superior or inferior in relation to each other in the eyes of God.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences, of course. It would be foolish to believe that men and women are completely identical right down to their physiology and biochemistry. Also, in terms of social status, duties, and responsibilities, in the day of Paul, there were still slaves and masters, equal in the love of God, but still a master held authority over the slave. The Galatians 3:28 “equality” didn’t “whitewash” humanity. There are still differences in biology and in social roles and status.

Which tends to chafe at some people, particularly those who are more politically liberal. After all, no one wants to support or commit acts of discrimination or injustice which lowers one human being in relation to another. If we’re all equal in God’s eyes, shouldn’t our identities, practices, and roles relative to the faith be identical, too?

Not necessarily.

I quoted the commentary on Berachos 37 above to illustrate that on the level of spiritual development, we can exist on very different planes of accomplishment. A tzaddik like the Rebbe obviously has a more highly developed perspective on spiritual matters than the Chassid who was observing him. Their transaction reminds me of another “Rebbe” relating to his own “Chassidim.”

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” –Luke 9:46-48 (ESV)

Jesus knew “the reasoning of their hearts” even as the Rebbe in the story above noticed “the subtle change of demeanor from reverence to careful appraisal” of his Chassid. He was also just as quick to point out that there we indeed differences between a Rebbe and his Chassid, just as there were differences between Jesus and his disciples. We are also the disciples of Jesus and just like his students of ancient days, we have a long way to go in our learning and understanding. We are not equal to our Master.

Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. –John 13:16 (ESV)

I don’t think any Christian, regardless of denomination, tradition, or sect, would seriously consider themselves as equal to Jesus Christ, but do we consider ourselves always equal to one another?

Given the nature of human beings, probably not. That is, people have a tendency to elevate themselves at the expense of others. But is this always unjustified? It wasn’t in terms of the Rebbe and his Chassid. But what about between different groups of believers.

In traditional Judaism, Jews do not see themselves as superior to Christians or any other group of Gentiles. They only see themselves as functionally different based on the covenant requirements that were specified at Sinai. This viewpoint is illuminated by a response to an “Ask the Rabbi” question about why Jews don’t proselytize.

It would be discriminatory for Judaism to proselytize and try to convert those not of the religion. That would imply that everybody needs to be Jewish in order to make a relationship with God, participate in the Torah’s vision of repairing the world, and “get to heaven.” Yet this is not so.

The idea of demanding that everyone to convert is probably familiar to you as a Christian ideal. For example, a Baptist group in Florida recently spent over $1 million to distribute a video entitled “Jesus” to every household in Palm Beach County. It’s no coincidence that 60 percent of these homes are Jewish.

Be that as it may, the Jewish idea is that the Torah of Moses is a truth for all humanity, whether Jewish or not. The Torah (as explained in the Talmud – Sanhedrin 58b) presents seven mitzvot for non-Jews to observe. These seven laws are the pillars of human civilization, and are named the Seven Laws of Noah, since all humans are descended from Noah.

Maimonides explains that any human being who faithfully observes these laws earns a proper place in heaven. So you see, the Torah is for all humanity, no conversion necessary.

As well, when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he specifically asked God to heed the prayer of non-Jews who come to the Temple (1-Kings 8:41-43). The Temple was the universal center of spirituality, which the prophet Isaiah referred to as a “house for all nations.” The service in the Holy Temple during the week of Sukkot featured a total of 70 bull offerings, corresponding to each of the 70 nations of the world. In fact, the Talmud says that if the Romans would have realized how much they were benefiting from the Temple, they never would have destroyed it!

Of course, anyone wanting to take on an extra level of responsibility can voluntarily convert to become Jewish. But that is not a prerequisite for having a relationship with God and enjoying eternal reward.

From “Jewish Proselytizing?”
Ask the Rabbi

interfaithYes, all men are equal in the sense that all men are descended from Noah, and thus the wisdom and truth of the Torah is for all humanity, but how the responsibilities of the Torah are to be expressed are a function of covenant responsibility from a Jewish point of view. Jews are obligated to the full 613 mitzvot as modern Judaism understands the Torah commandments today, while most Jews consider Gentiles obligated to a subset of the Torah as defined by the Seven Noahide Laws.

Christianity disputes this, not in terms of thinking that we believers are obligated to the full weight of the Torah, but that Jesus removed the Torah obligations for everyone, and replaced them with grace, love, and forgiveness. I don’t believe the Bible supports this particular theology and maintain that while we non-Jewish Christians are not obligated to the full yoke of Torah, the Jewish people do remain a people of the full Torah in response to God and Sinai.

Christians and Jews don’t particularly believe that one group is better than the other and equality between the two groups is less of a concern than incompatibility. They simply see each other as completely different religious entities. Jews are Jews and Christians are Christians.

But if Christians and Jews traditionally don’t struggle over issues of equality or superiority, then where is the problem? We’ll address that in Part 2 of this series.

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