Equality In Shul

I think people who feel secure with themselves find most shuls to have a large amount of social equality, about as much as is desirable. For those with a chip on their shoulders, Jewish life revolves around the rich, blah, blah.

I’m thinking of a rich guy in shul who did not talk to mere mortals. Boy, was it a pleasure for me to stick the knife in when the time came. For those who are too high and mighty to return my gut shabbos greeting, I feel sweet when I get to deliver divine karma.

I am G-d’s messenger.

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

I’m often amazed when I learn after the fact who it was that I was sitting near in a shul or shmoozing with at a kiddush. Sometimes it turns out to be a multi-millionaire, sometimes a prominent communal leader, sometimes a working father struggling to earn a living, and sometimes an impoverished person. And I had no idea. In my experience, the Jewish community tends to do a pretty good job of breaking down class barriers.

Granted, there are neighborhoods where only the rich can afford to live or only the poor are stuck living. And there are some shuls that are snobby. But they seem to be unusual. In general, I’ve found that most shuls have a healthy mix of people from different economic circumstances. Moreover, unless you are someone who is quite conscious of these things, there is little way of knowing who is who. All men come to shul in a suit and — particularly in yeshivish and chassidish circles — many rich men do not wear suits that are any fancier than everyone else’s. Wherever there is some sort of uniform, that relative uniformity of attire irons out economic differences. You really have to be attuned to these things to tell who is rich and who is not.

And even if you can tell, most people don’t care. I remember in one shul where I was a regular, there was one boy who always came to shul with suit pants that were totally tattered on the bottom. It was only after I saw them that I thought about it and realized that, based on what his father does for a living and the number of kids in the family, they are just getting by — at best. After I noticed it, I kept a lookout to see if anyone treated that family any differently. I never saw anything.

Maybe it’s just because I don’t care about such things that I think it is the general attitude. But my impression is that Judaism allows for a good deal of interaction between economic classes and there is quite a bit of equality. Not total equality — I have never been and probably will never be honored at a major organization’s dinner. I can’t bring them the money they need. Although, frankly, I don’t really want to be honored anyway. There is no question that money brings privileges. And if your child is causing problems at school and is in danger of being expelled, money goes a long way. Nevertheless, there is still a surprisingly good deal of equality. I can walk into any shul in Brooklyn and (assuming I’m wearing the right kind of yarmulka or hat) be treated as an equal regardless of how much money I have. Economic status does not determine social status, even if it sometimes affects it to a degree.

I had this in mind as I read R. Joshua Berman’s recent book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought. R. Berman, a Bible professor (technically – lecturer) at Bar Ilan University, wrote a book of inter-disciplinary scholarship, analyzing the Bible from the perspective of political theory. The conclusion he reached is that the Bible promotes an approach that is remarkably egalitarian in terms of people of different legal and economic statuses. The law applies to everyone, is accessible to everyone, and attempts to avoid dramatic economic imbalances without resorting to socialism. The result is a tradition that has impacted the Jewish community to the extent that even in non-legal ways, there is a remarkable egalitarianism.

JOE COOL COMMENTS: In my experience, the Jewish community tends to do a pretty good job of breaking down class barriers.

That would only be significant if the rest of the American society had significant class barriers to break down. In my experience, it does not. Other countries (e.g. UK) are extremely class conscious. Do you think that the Jewish community there does "a pretty good job of breaking down class barriers"?

LARRY LENNHOFF WRITES: Equal how, exactly? Judaism is full of inequalities: the Cohen cannot attend his cousin’s funeral, the convert may not own land, the yisrael cannot enter certain precincts of the temple, women may not testify in court on certain topics etc. Complete equality among Jews was proposed by Korach. We can see from the Torah how well regarded that was.

NO ONE POSTS: The differences range as to who gets admonished for "improper" shul behaviour, to who gets to sit where, to who gets an aliyah, to who gets to comment on the rabbi’s remarks and get listened to, to who buys which kibbudiim, need I go on?.

In the non-religious community, status is paraded by size of house, type of car driven, club one belongs, etc.

In the religious world, since we need to be near each other these external manifestations are somewhat subdued. They are there; they are just channeled into other directions.

No less an authority than Tevye the milkman expressed it best in the Fiddler on the Roof’s section "if I were a rich man".

ANON POSTS: Superficially it may seem that there are few class barriers in the (Orthodox) Jewish community, but come on. There are vastly different crowds at weddings, bungalow colonies, and many other important social events. It’s true that the way our community is structured (shul, mikva, yeshiva) people of different classes rub shoulders in a way they don’t in the general society, but are there really many friendships between the upper and lower classes of our society?

ANBO POSTS: I didn’t really know who was rich and who wasn’t, either, growing up at Ramaz, unless my parents talked about it. There were in-groups of KJ people (we were LSS people), but unless I went to their apartments, I didn’t know who was rich. Like, if you live in a huge apt on 5th Avenue, you must be rich. But others lived in big apartments who were lucky in getting big rent-controlled apartments decades earlier, like my grandparents.

PIERRE POSTS: Much of his material, as he states in the introduction, is decades old, preceding R. Sacks. An orthoprax professor whom I frequently shared this sort of material with dimissed it as largely things he’d heard before, growing up Conservative – ignoring the statement in the introduction, and ignoring R. Berman’s *particular* synthesis of material that makes it an original exposition. As I mentioned before in the latest "books received" post, he doesn’t make any kind of actual argument for singular authorship/Editorship – but it could be reasonably deduced *from his presentation of the evidence*, as could some kind of human authorship – which is what is otherwise presented as the SOLE reasonable supposition regarding how Torah is knit together as a work; like I said, not an argument – but it IS a presentation of evidence that lends unity to Torah that is compatible with certain claims for it’s divinity. It is not far from some work by Umberto Cassuto, no "traditionalist" scholar. And R. Berman happened to have penned the introduction to the lastest edition of Umberto Cassuto’s Documentary Hypothesis – Published by Shalem Center – who gave the grant for the research behind Created Equal.

DF POSTS: The absence of any class barriers is a big problem for us. It’s true – rich and poor mingle freely. But that’s why we have the phenomenon of rebbeim and koileel yungeleit wanting to dress and live the life of people working three times as hard as them. They daven together with millionaires, eat with them, maybe sometimes play ball with them, even use the same mikvah, where all barriers are totally gone – so why shouldnt they live like them, too?

This is a problem also for ordinary ballebattim with overly-high hasagos, of course, but I think the problem is most actute with the so-called "klei kodesh".

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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