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Equal before the law



The great historian, Paul Johnson, in his introduction to A History of the Jews, lists several key concepts and institutions which originated completely within the Torah and Jewish thinking.

He writes in his introduction to the book, “All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal, and love as the foundation of justice; and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”

The first one Johnson lists is equality before the law.

Westerners, pre and post-modernists, with typical arrogance, assume that this principle is a given and that all civilisations accept it.

But the truth is, it isn’t a given. Equality before the law is a Torah concept which most ancient civilisations rejected and many current civilisations do too. The behaviour of our ex-president Jacob Zuma and his cronies puts the lie to the blind belief that “people” believe and accept this concept.

Many societies preferred and still prefer the back-door horse trading of the powerful as the best path to social balance. But that’s not the Torah approach. The Torah teaches us that the best path to social stability is where all are subject equally to a law which is blind to our social standing.

This week’s parsha demonstrates the Torah’s take in practise – no-one is above the law. Even a king or president is subject to the law.

But when you ask, “Why should we be equal before the law?” and “Why is this the best path?” it isn’t so simple to answer from a secular legal standpoint. But from a Torah standpoint, the reason is simple: it’s based on Jewish theology. We believe that:

a)    G-d is the creator and law giver – He creates the physical world and its physical laws. And He also creates the moral world and moral laws.

b)   Every human being is created in G-d’s image – we are all equal in this regard, and equally subject to G-d’s moral laws.

So, no matter who you are, you are as bound to and by G-d as anybody else. This is why equality before the law makes sense. In a society with in-built hierarchies, like Egypt (or perhaps certain modern tribes), the head of that society is closer to G-d, perhaps even an incarnation of a g-d, and therefore is qualitatively different from his or her subjects. But the Torah’s view is far flatter – from the king to the water drawer, all are equal before G-d, and all are equally subject to His law.

This idea – that the law (Torah) is supreme, along with the Torah’s moral framework for instilling fear of G-d and honesty – are key ingredients for equity, prosperity, and hope.

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