Equality, Elitism, and Judaism

By Roshwald, Mordecai | Midstream, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Equality, Elitism, and Judaism


Roshwald, Mordecai, Midstream


To proclaim that one is an elitist these days is tantamount to the confession of a grievous sin. To do so with self-assertion, with implicit self-approval, is considered an act of arrogance and hubris. Elitism is thought to be antiegalitarian, undemocratic, un-American. In an age when America is the ultimate measure of all things, being un-American equals being simply wrong.

Yet Judaism actually takes an elitist position in a certain sense. It does not accord superior status to wealth or to birth. It does not endorse hereditary aristocracy or riches, whether old or new. There may have been some recognition of such advantages at various times during the lengthy course of Jewish history, but such recognition has been primarily in the realization of the social benefits of these lucky circumstances, rather than in their intrinsic merits. Contrasted with these has been the esteem accorded to persons of learning--at one time of rabbinical learning and more recently of accomplishment in the spheres of modern science and scholarship. The elite of the knowledgeable and wise, as well as of the devout and charitable, were looked upon with approval and even admiration.

In Biblical times, deep respect seems to have been accorded to individuals with special spiritual power, such as the prophets, but also to people of exceptional talent in various walks of life. Characteristically, such individuals were noted as being inspired by God. Thus, the Bible refers to the "judges," the deliverers of Israel from oppression, as people to whom "the spirit of the Lord came" or whom "the spirit of the Lord moved." (Judges 3:10, 11:29, 13:25). Obviously prophecy, expressed in moral guidance and social criticism, is linked to divine instruction and inspiration; so is, clearly, the personality of the messiah: "And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might." (Isaiah 2:2) Interestingly, the artistic excellence of a craftsman is also extolled as a testimony to divine inspiration. Thus Moses, selecting Bezalel to undertake and direct the work of the sanctuary--engraving, carving, embroidering, weaving--praises him as one filled "with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship." (Exodus 35:31) Clearly, any exceptional quality that cannot be acquired by learning--whether moral leadership, commitment to national salvation, exceptional artistic talent--is perceived as being divinely inspired, and what is divinely inspired is lauded and admired. Thus, exceptional individuals are accepted as an elite group and cherished as such.

Is that undemocratic? Does such an attitude undermine the notion of basic equal rights for human beings? Not necessarily. For the excellence is not reserved for a class of people. It is not a privilege that is transmitted by heredity. As far as human experience is concerned, individuals of excellence in one field or another are just that, however we may choose to explain their appearance on the scene. Once they are present, society is the beneficiary of their activity, and it is only natural that society should recognize their merit and be thankful.

Moreover, ascent to the level of the elite is open to anyone who may be suitably endowed. This is beautifully conveyed in a story in Numbers 11:16-17, 2430. Moses, who is overwhelmed by his role, is told by the Lord to select 70 individuals from among the elders of the people and bring them into the tabernacle, where some of the spirit of Moses will be transferred and put on them so that they will be able to shoulder some of the leader's burden. Two of the 70, who for some reason remained outside the tabernacle, are affected by the "transfer" and prophesy in the camp. This being reported to Moses, Joshua, "the servant of Moses," apparently indignant at the irregularity, exclaims: "My Lord Moses, stop them." (11:28) To which Moses replies: "Enviest thou for my sake? …

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