Friday, May 12, 2023

Equality for Some and Not All

Liberté. égalité. Fraternité. French for liberty , Equality and fraternity and are the ideals from the French Revolution and enshrined in the French Constitution. These values have been the foundation for everyone living with equal rights in a democratic society. On this side of the pond, the American Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, were inspired by the lofty words articulated in the Declaration of Independence that that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The common perception in these Western democracies is that discrimination is prohibited and equal rights a fundamental right that no one can deny any individual his or her rigths. A closer look at both these democratic systems reveals that this is not the case. For example, In line with France's laws on laïcité (secularism), it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion , including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, schools, and universities (except for visitors). This is not limited to its Muslim citizens. The ban on wearing religious symbols in public extends to Jews wearing Yarmulkes and Kippahs. The French Education Ministry manual for public schools sends an annual memo reminding teachers that wearing religious symbols in public schools is illegal and urging them to punish non-compliant students. In the French Canadian province of Quebec, the controversial Bill 21 prevents judges, police officers, teachers, and public servants from wearing symbols such as the kippah, turban, or hijab while at work. One may pretend the United States does not suffer from any selective discrimination. That is not necessarily the case. In the United States, discrimination based on religion is protected under Title VII and the Civil Rights Act. It is a protected class that includes race, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information. Other individuals are not so fortunate. For example, anyone that is bald, obese, or belongs to a particular political party is not part of a protected class. Therefore, the anti-discrimination laws do not extend to these individuals. The U.S. government and its courts are very particular about who may be considered a protected class. It's hard to entertain the notion that the basis of the anti-discrimination laws is based upon Derech Eretz and the fundamental belief that everyone is created in the image of G-d. Alas, that is not the case, as there are many people whom it is perfectly legal to discriminate against. One can fairly conclude that the protected classes are less about Derech Eretz to all individuals and more about showing deference and celebrating specific demographics. The modern application of Equality extends to other areas of society as well. For example, to have a company listed on the NASDAQ, one must adhere to the Diversity Rules, which state that U.S. companies have one female director and one director who self-identifies as a racial minority or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. It's interesting to note that the Nasdaq Diversity Rule does not extend to other groups not in the protected class. Hollywood has followed in the selective discrimination path as starting in 2024, films must meet specific diversity requirements in order to be eligible for the best picture award, which is Hollywood's most sought-after accolade. The new guidelines include requirements like at least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group being in a significant role, or the story must center on women, LGBTQ people, a racial group, or disabled people. I wonder about the demonstrators in Israel that are protesting against judicial reform about the need to preserve democracy as to which utopian system they are fantasizing about. Israel has its own interesting way with the application of democracy. In 2019, the Israeli Supreme Court banned communities from having gender separated concerts, despite the desire of the attendees to have the cultural event in that fashion. It appears many in Israel fancy the notion of democracy as they do in France with an attempt to impose secular values on others in the name of Equality. The Torah and its standards have been attacked for being inconsistent with the values of Equality. For example, some have criticized the elevated status of a Kohen and a Levi. The standard of a male Kohen receiving the First Aliyah and the male Levi receiving the Second Aliyah is inconsistent with Equality and thus discrimination. There are progressive streams in Judaism that have done away with the traditional system in favor of Equality and therefore, any male or female may receive any aliyah. The Torah recognizes that people do not inherently have rights but rather responsibilities. It is precisely for that reason that a male Kohen gets called up first to the Torah and the male Levi follows him before other males can be called up. The lineup for Aliyahs to the Torah does not suggest that a male Kohen or male Levi is morally superior to others. Rather, it reflects the notion that to their unique destiny and spiritual roadmap, they may have some responsibilities that others may not. In a responsibility-centered society, one has to ask what responsibilities they have to fulfill their unique mission in life. Equality is definitely an important value when applied correctly. For those that champion Equality at all costs and are more than eager to do away with tradition, one should reflect upon the consequences that this path has thrown toward our society. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

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