“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But the cold hard fact is that all people are not equal. Some people are more equal than others. This is why Kim Kardashian, a woman who is famous for being famous, got to visit the White House to meet with the president of the United States.
She wanted to plead the case of Alice Marie Johnson, who has spent 20 years in prison on a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. And because of this meeting, Mrs. Johnson now is more equal than the approximately 319,000 other people in US prisons for drug offenses.
We are each shaped by the circumstances into which we were born. Americans, who are so dedicated to individual freedoms, whose very founding document says that we are all equal, don’t like to hear this.
Jews have an easier time with it. Our founding document says that we were not always free, that more important than our individual rights is the responsibility we have for each other, for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
And our tradition teaches that while all people are created b‘tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, they are not all equal. The Torah makes no bones about this: throughout Genesis we see parents choosing one son over another, and even God chose favorites.
God said as much, just before giving the Torah on Mt. Sinai; “If you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant,” said God, “you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-7).
And when it comes to the leaders of the community, the same holds true. Aaron may be a leader by dint of being Moses’ brother, but there is most definitely a hierarchy. God is quick to shoot down Aaron and Miriam when they question Moses’ position; they complain, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:2).
God reminds them that Moses is the one who God trusts most, and speaks with directly. Moses outranks them. In short, he’s God’s favorite.
Chosenness, whether or not it is earned, does not sit well with us, because of the implications of superiority. We don’t like the idea of anyone thinking that they’re better than anyone else.
But chosen or not, the circumstances of one’s birth and the society into which a person is born, play a role in every human’s life. I was born in New York, not New Delhi, or New Mexico, or New Zealand. My parents were Jewish, Caucasian, from well-to-do families. Both the place I was born and the family into which I was born had ineffable and inescapable effects on who I would become.
One result of this framing of one’s existence is what is known as implicit bias. Not a well-known phrase until recently, it has been mentioned often this week, because Starbucks closed all of its stores nationwide for half a day, and required every employee to go through implicit bias training.
What is implicit bias? The Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University says this:
Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. … implicit biases are not accessible through introspection. [emphasis mine]
Here’s a perfect example – I heard a caller on a radio program flatly state that there is no such thing as implicit bias. He said that bias only exists in the mind of the person claiming that someone else is prejudiced against them. In short, the biases that this man holds are so deeply ingrained that he is unable to recognize them as such.
This is a problem, both on an individual level and on a communal level. Just today, a law took effect in the German state of Bavaria requiring that all public buildings display a Christian cross at the entrance to greet visitors.
The Bavarian state Premier, Markus Soder, announced the law at a cabinet meeting, saying: “The cross is a fundamental symbol of our Bavarian identity and way of life. It stands for elementary values such as charity, human dignity, and tolerance.”
Another official added, “Ours is a Christian culture and everyone should respect the cross as a symbol of it.”
It’s easy for us to see that this is wrong on so many levels. Fortunately, not all Bavarians share their implicit bias. Martin Hagen, speaking for the Free Liberal Party, said, “It is a sign to people of other faiths that they are not a part of the community and they do not belong with us.” His party plans to contest the law.
Our nation’s Declaration of Independence states that all people have certain unalienable rights; among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Just yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that said everyone has the right to pursue happiness, but it’s up to each of us to catch it.
Yes, and it is up to us as a society to ensure that everyone is able to pursue it. Children who go to bed hungry, elders and veterans who are disabled and alone, people who have no home, how can they possibly pursue happiness?
As the Talmud teaches, ayn kemach, ayn Torah. Where there is no bread, there is no Torah. And certainly little or no chance for happiness.
We have choices, regardless of our implicit biases. We can choose to pursue our own happiness, protect our own lives, preserve our own freedom. And we can choose to step beyond our own self-interest and pursue that which is good for all people.
Near the beginning of the Ethics of our Fathers we read these words: “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and deeds of loving-kindness.”
When he said this, Simon the Righteous didn’t add, “to whomever we please.” The deeds of loving-kindness that he demands are deeds that are blind to privilege and class, to race and religion.
These are deeds of kindness, performed on behalf of any person or group of people who are in need. And when it comes to needing kindness, we are all equal.
This is the text of the sermon that I delivered at my synagogue, Congregation Kol HaNeshama this evening (6/1/18).