Fairness – Emor 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

I came across an interesting observation made by a contemporary rabbi whose name is not important but whose view is, since it probably represents popular thinking. Writing on the Torah portion Emor under the title “It’s Not Fair,” this rabbi says: “Even a child knows that the world ought to be fair. Even a child knows that the way one person is treated ought to be the same way that the next person is treated, that the gifts one child receives or the punishment that one child is given ought to be equal to the kind of gifts her brother gets or the kind of punishments his sister got for the same offense.” The source for this view is Leviticus 24:19-20. “An eye for an eye” – in the view of this rabbi, is “a humane innovation in human history designed to limit the retribution of one individual or family or clan against another to a clearly defined, limited and fair response.”  In other words, the Torah introduces the novel idea of fairness, albeit in an ancient context.

While I certainly applaud this rabbi’s intent to rectify the general notion of the misinformed that the laws of the Torah are indefensibly harsh and even primitive, when it comes to the concept of fairness, the rabbi is mistaken. Treating each person the same way is not fairness, but folly. One would be hard pressed to defend the notion that the old or infirm should be treated the same way as the young and healthy or that non-citizens should enjoy the same rights and privileges as citizens, or, in an extreme case, that convicted pedophiles should be equally considered for positions as kindergarten teachers. Giving deference to the old and infirm is the hallmark of a compassionate society. Protecting children from potential harm is the hallmark of a caring society.

Moreover, from the Jewish perspective, giving heightened respect to parents and special treatment to priests and Levites is endemic to the Torah.  Even when it comes to children, the Rabbinic tradition avoids making the grand – and unjustifiable – claim that all children should be treated alike. Rather, the Talmud states that, given the tragic consequence of the episode of Joseph and his brothers, a father should not show favoritism to one child over others (Shabbat 10a). The difference is important. Fathers in particular and parents in general may ordain a later bed-time for older children or give the more independent children a bigger allowance. But what parents may not do is show greater love to one more than another. Judaism is far more nuanced than an  association with a simplistic doctrine of fairness would imply. Aristotle’s observation that justice is treating like people alike and different people differently is certainly more apt.

If there is a lesson to be learned from children in the playground it is not that the principle of fairness is supreme. Rather, the lesson to be learned from children in the playground is that they are still children. As such, they have a juvenile understanding of the world. The role of parents, society, and even Judaism is to offer a more sophisticated understanding to what children observe.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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