On The Creation of All Humanity

by rabbilimmer

Inaugural Sermon, Chicago Sinai Congregation, July 4, 2014

 

         When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Natures God entitle them.[1]

 

            Such is the famed preamble our founding fathers provided when they declared independence from the British Empire 238 years ago this very day.  Invoking the imprimatur of Nature’s God and Law, the Continental Congress continued lionizing liberty with these illustrious lines:

         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.[2]

 

            Today, we celebrate this distinguished declaration with white sales, barbecues, and fireworks displays.  I imagine such mundane matters could not have been further from the mind of Thomas Jefferson when in June of 1776 he sat down to draft this distinguished document.[3]  Meditating on the rights of the people and the consent of the governed, Jefferson blended his background in political philosophy with his theological Deism to assert arguably the primary principle of American Democracy: all men are created equal. Of course, Jefferson’s purported relationship with Sally Hemings illustrates the shortcoming of his fundamental assertion; it has taken these United States of America over two hundred years to realize that all people—men and women, caucasian and not, heterosexual and LGBTQ—should be seen as equal.  This painful evolution aside, I believe Jefferson’s ideal that all men are created equal, is the among the most important propositions not only in our American saga, but in the history of our world.

 

            Throughout our world, people continue to struggle against those who see Jefferson’s truth as false, as far from self-evident. Repressive regimes and oppressive despots deny the fundamental equality of humanity, disenfranchising ethnic blocs, suppressing religious minorities, and subjugating the rights of women.  It is as important for our world to hearken to Jefferson’s words in 2014 as it was for our newly-birthed nation to rally behind them in 1776.  Amidst our contemporary marketing mania, through the spires of smoke soaring from grills, we should this very day focus on the foundational premise of our Declaration of Independence as if its words shoot through the night, lighting up the sky.  We should be rightfully proud that American as apple pie and motherhood is our fundamental commitment to the equal rights of every human being.  The notion of equality is America’s great gift to the world.  Therefore it might be a bit odd, especially having heaped praise upon Jefferson’s maxim, to inform you that, tonight, I am going to argue against this American axiom.  I do so not to diminish its historical importance or its ethical impact; instead, I intend to augment Jefferson’s declaration of how humanity is created with the teachings of our Jewish tradition.

 

            First, let us understand—as best we can—what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he scripted the saying all men are created equal.  We know from his own diaries how deeply he was affected by Enlightenment thought: Newton, Bacon, and especially John Locke were the philosophers who had the greatest influence over his ideological development.[4]  However, when it came to this most admired adage, it happens to have been Hobbes who had the biggest impact on Jefferson’s idea of equality.  Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan:

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable.[5]

Hobbes highlights that human equality has to do with the relative equivalence of our mental and physical faculties. Although there are some who are smarter and others who are stronger, there is no considerable claim that individual’s abilities might be un-equal; we are all relatively equal in gifts of body and mind.  Thomas Jefferson, with his focus on the Laws of Nature and of Natures God, apparently appropriated from Hobbes this idea that nature hath made men so equal in faculties, that—relatively speaking—we the same to any reasonable degree.  On July 4, 1776, all men are created equal mostly meant that all men—yes, white, land-owning men of the gentry—were more or less equal to one another in mental and physical capacity.

 

            Here is where I take issue with Thomas Jefferson: it is counterfactual to claim all men are created equal; it is easy to see how human beings are so obviously created differently each from the other.  Granted, an I.Q. of 140 is not considerably different from one of 120; there is a vast intellectual gap, however, between a member of Mensa and a person with significant learning challenges.[6]   In the realm of the physical, similar chasms exist: Hobbes argues that any one man is strong enough to kill any other; without debating that spurious point, I know who would win every single time were I to play LeBron James in one-on-one basketball.  It is clear to us all that there are differences—significant disparities, considerable distinctions—among the ways in which all human beings are created.  All human beings are not created equal.

 

            In fairness to Jefferson, the aspiration of his assertion all men are created equal arches beyond its original meaning.  In looking beyond that original meaning, we begin with sympathetic agreement: although all human beings are far from uniform in their mental or physical capabilities, we sense there is some other quality that puts us on par with each other, makes us equals to each other.  We know we do not think like each other, act like each other, look like each other: if our equivalence is not to be discovered in our considerably varied capacities, perhaps we should understand our similarities through a different lens.  Such an alternate perspective is what our Jewish tradition provides.  Although written nearly two millennia before Jefferson drafted the Declaration, our Talmud too talks about that which is the same in the creation of every human soul:

An individual produces many coins from one die, and they all look the same.  God, on the other hand, stamps every human being from the die of the first human being, yet not one of them looks like the other.[7]

 

            Our Sages of Old are unimpressed by the considerable equivalence of all men; instead, they are in awe of how different we are, each from the other.  Ironically, it is the incredible variety of humanity that leads our Rabbis to realize what connects the creation of every human being: God created Adam in the Divine Image, in the Image of God was Adam created; male and female God created them.[8]  Our tradition understands that we are not created equally; however Judaism has always asserted that every human being throughout history has been created in the Image Divine.  Now, we must remember even our Talmudic teachers did not take this legend literally: our Rabbis knew that being created in the Divine Image had nothing to do with how each human being looks, or behaves, or thinks.  Instead, the concept that each of us is cast in the Image of God means we are—every one of us—imprinted with divine dignity. We are taught that a sacred aspect of the Divine is reposited in  every human being.

 

            If you asked me to do so, I could not prove that each of us is created in God’s Image.  Our religious truth is not self-evident.  Even as I cannot demonstrate the veracity of this central concept, I believe that ascribing to this ideal of human dignity is essential to understanding our Jewish tradition.  And I am not alone.  Ben Azzai, leading luminary of the early Rabbis, argues that seeing the divinity in every person is the most important teaching in our entire Torah.[9]  We understand why when we consider two aspects of this creed.  To begin with, because every individual is created in the Divine Image, every human being has inestimable value.  Even if we cannot agree upon a definition of God—even if we are not sure what or if God is—we know that God is the name we give to the most significant force in the universe.  We are taught in Genesis, at the very beginning, that a piece, a reflection, a facet of this Supreme Holiness is placed inside every human being.  This is our Jewish grounding of human dignity: every individual has immeasurable worth because each of us is stamped with the imprimatur of the Divine.

 

            Genesis does not only teach us about the source of human dignity.  A second aspect of this teaching is perhaps more profound.  You see, throughout human history, many have gone in search of God, tried to understand God, attempted to describe or define the Divine.  Few, if any, have succeeded.  Yet, from the time of Genesis, our tradition has turned that theologic quest on its head.  If we want to see God in our world, we are taught precisely where to look: squarely into the eyes of another human being.  When we look into those eyes—although they might be a different color from our own, although they might be housed in a body either more perfected or sadly misshapen—when we look into the eyes of another human being we are taught to look for that person’s immeasurable worth, to discover their dignity, to confront the Divine that is inside. 

 

            Seeing every person as created in the Divine Image should alter the nature of our human interactions.  Another luminary of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, famously taught, “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”[10]  He teaches that in our interactions we must remember the worth of others, and treat them always as ends, as beings of value whose dignity cannot be cast aside.  And while this Rabbi might argue with Jefferson, far be it for me to go up against Kant.  That Koenigsberg philosopher preaches precisely what our Talmud teaches: that every single one of our actions must express proper respect and reverence for the value of every person.[11]  We must always act so we demonstrate respect for Divinity, in ourselves or others, as our loftiest moral goal.

           

            There is a significant difference between seeing all men as created equal and understanding that every person is created in the Divine Image.  To see everyone as equal leads to the belief that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; the Jeffersonian ideal of human equality focuses us on the prerogatives and privileges to which every equal person is entitled.  And, clearly in America, we are enthralled with entitlement, personal rights, particular freedoms.  Contrasted with this American individualism is our Jewish outlook: seeing every person as created in the Divine Image leads us to consider not our own entitlements, but rather our obligations to others.  Ben Azzai arrived at the same conclusion as Kant: if we consider all people to be created with a dignity we call “holy”, then we realize our actions must be shaped by a respect for the value of other equally holy individuals.  If equality in America means we all have equal rights, being created in God’s image entails equal obligations on us all.

           

            The contrast between American rights and Jewish obligations is nowhere clearer than in our celebrations of independence.  We know full well what is on our agenda for later tonight, for the remainder of our three-day weekend.  July the 4th is all about parties and festivities; the splendor of fireworks and excess of food and drink.  But our Jewish festival of independence is different: while we do pour four glasses of wine, we mark our liberation from Egypt not with reckless revelry, but with thoughtful abstention and a clear commitment to retell our story and learn its lessons.  Passover, our great celebration of freedom, has us recall the bitterness of our oppression not to contrast it with the sweet entitlements of liberation, but instead to remind us of our obligation to work for a world where all are free.  You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.[12] Since Sinai, taught Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Judaism has been committed to“the conception of life as obligation and service.”[13]  To be free, in our tradition, is only to be obligated to work for the liberation of all humankind.

 

            I know by now I have likely kept you all a little longer than you might have liked from the festive evening that lies before us.  However, the confluence of July the 4th and our sacred Shabbat in an important opportunity to meditate on the intersection of our Jewish values with our American inheritance.  While I would never argue for altering the Declaration of Independence, I do think we should consider the difference between seeing all human beings as created equal, and understanding that every human being is of equal value.  As we go forth tonight to celebrate, I hope we pause to think not only of the unalienable rights with which each of us is endowed, but also of the religious responsibilities to which our heritage holds us accountable.  As we see those magnificent fireworks burst in the air over this great city of Chicago, let us not only revel in our own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but let us also dedicate ourselves—tomorrow, or on Monday when the celebration subsides—to commit ourselves to working to ensure that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be enjoyed by every single human being, created in the Image of God.

 

 

[1] The Declaration of Independence.  The sentence concludes, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

[2] Interestingly, the day before this sermon was delivered, the question was publicly raised as to whether or not Jefferson intended to end the sentence here, or continue on without this period.  See Jennifer Schuessler, “If Only Jefferson Could Settle the Issue: A Period is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence,” The New York Times, July 3, 2014, page A1.

[3] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence, 97–105.

[4] Merrill Peterson, ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. New York: Library of America, p. 1236.

[5] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, Chapter XIII.  The sentence concludes by addressing the rights borne of this equality, “As that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.”

[6] I doubt that the latter feels created equal with the former, and I would hope the former realizes their fortune in being bestowed their intellectual endowment.

[7] Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 4:5.  This passage also contains the parallel teaching, made famous through the movie Schindlers List: that one who destroys a single life has it reckoned as if an entire world was destroyed; conversely one who saves a single life is given credit as if they saved the world entire.

[8] Genesis 1:17.  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

[9]See Midrash Genesis Rabbah 24:

Ben Azzai said [regarding Genesis 5:1]: This is the book of the descendants of Adam is a great principle of the Torah.

Rabbi Akiba said [Leviticus 19:18]: Love your neighbor as yourself is even a greater principle.  Since it means you must not say, Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor be put to shame.

R. Tanhuma said: If you do so, know whom you put to shame, [as we learn in Genesis 1] In the image Divine did God created humanity.

[10] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 4:429.

[11] Here I am indebted to the work of my college advisor, Allen Wood, Kants Ethical Thought, p. 141.

[12] Exodus 22:20.  וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

[13] Emil G. Hirsch, Hebrew Union College Annual, 1904, p. 163.

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