Separate but equal. Though the United States Supreme Court ruled such a notion discriminatory, the Jewish constitution, our Torah, begs to differ. Judaism posits that there are distinct obligations for distinct people. (It is interesting to note how the United States Declaration of Independence, a document rich in Jewish values, talks about the rights of people whereas the constitution of the Jewish people, our Torah focuses on obligations or mitzvoth.) While our egalitarian society aims to blur the innate differences between people Judaism celebrates these same differences. Therefore was man created as one to teach us the greatness of G-d that though we all emanate from Adam not one of us is like another (Sanhedrin 37a). Jewish law states that ideally a shul should have 12 windows corresponding to the 12 tribes of the Jewish people with each tribe reflecting different approaches to implementing our Torah. It is not the fact that we are different but how we deal with our differences that determine the health of any society. Where others accept cultural differences Judaism posits that even accidents of birth determine one obligations in life.
G-d told Moses to declare the following to Aarons descendants, the priests (21:1). Thus opens this weeks parsha that details the unique obligations and restrictions that are placed upon kohanim. Being a first born or a Levi brings with it separate responsibilities as does the fluke of nature that has the biggest determination on our role as Jews, whether we are male or female. It is in this area of gender roles where Judaism and egalitarianism must part ways. Judaism sees not only physiological differences between male and female but ritual (as distinct from moral and ethical) ones as well. No doubt the two are related. Undoubtedly over the last 50 years there have been tremendous changes in the role of women even in the most traditional of homes. While the role of women within a traditional framework continues to be debated and different legitimate models are in place it is clear that while there is tremendous overlap there are also fundamental differences between the role of men and women.
Of course in the area of human rights Judaism (nor I hope does modern society) sees no distinction between different classes of people. The notion of kevod habriot, literally honor to creation extends to each and every human being. We all have a right to be treated with dignity respect and honor. In fact the Talmud in mandating that a convicted murderer be treated with a certain degree of dignity quotes as its source the verse and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Did not G-d lament the drowning of the Egyptians of the sea? Though certain people may forfeit their right to life - Judaism mandates capital punishment (in theory at least) for a host of sins - while alive they must be treated as one created in G-ds image. The issue is not one of the rights of the condemned but rather the obligations of others to treat even those who are devoid of rights with dignity and compassion. A subtle difference perhaps, but an important one.
You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to me (Exodus 19:6). We are reminded time and time again that we are to act in a way befitting our status as a holy nation. I must be sanctified among the Israelites (22:18). Holiness at its basic level means distinctiveness. While we share the concerns of society at large our way of life as Jews is in many areas quite distinctive. Distinctiveness is not only reflected in our relations with the outside world but also internally. The Sages teach us that one of the signs of wisdom is the ability to differentiate. Let us celebrate our differences as we all strive for the common goal of making this world a better place for all. Shabbat Shalom!