With tension between Judaism and Democracy, look at whose side G^d is!
First of all, the Mishna is very clear. Proper inter-human relations are the prime focal point of the Jewish ‘religion.’ It is part of the ‘worship’ that G^d wants from His subjects. If torn between serving G^d of people, run to the people. G^d needs relate to our needs (to give honor); He Himself is fine.
G^d is not a moody idol that needs to be pacified and bribed with gifts and sacrifices. Our life is a gift and we are ‘compelled’ to accept it and enjoy it. And not to ruin it, ruin the lives of others, or ruin the planet.
Give children no limits and you’ll see that they feel unseen, unloved (who cares about me if they don’t care what I do?), and insecure. And, of course, the guidelines should be pleasant and not be oppressive. G^d’s love expresses itself in that He wants us to have a good life. And part of that good life must be to have limits, so that it stays good to us. Furthermore, the Jewish religion gives guidance and permission, more than restrictions.
Not Identical, Still Equal
Judaism doesn’t see all people are identical. They are not. But they are equally important. Look at the 13 children of Patriarch Jacob who are depicted — each a world of their own. But, unlike many human societies and worldviews, Judaism doesn’t juxtapose so-called important powerful rich privileged noteworthy admirable beautiful lovable commanding entitled leaders against unimportant powerless poor underprivileged insignificant despicable ugly unlovable masses that must obey.
Judaism is unlike religions that distinguish between the people G^d loves and those He doesn’t. Hell is only eternal for the worst of the worst. For the vast majority of people (99.999% — my estimation), Hell is merely an unpleasant preparation room for eternal life in Paradise. The main purpose for life on earth is to give a good life here and a good life there, enhanced by that we worked for it ourselves. Everyone should get a good deal.
The prescribed roles of Jews and Gentiles are often opposites. Jews must keep Shabbat, Gentiles are forbidden to keep the Jewish Shabbat (in all its details. One tiny violation suffices). Same for men and women. Same for capable and for less talented or less powerful people. The former have to answer to higher expectations, must take more responsibilities (in Judaism), overall, and not more rights or privileges. Also, the exalted role of Jews (“chosen”) refers to higher expectations, not privilege or favoritism.
The place of men and women is not the same (sexism, pregnancy, feelings) and therefore Judaism doesn’t treat them as identical. This is to level the inequality and uproot sexism. The inequality of men and women for Jewish Law is not to suppress women but to help men to stop being abusive and sexist. The Torah and Jewish Law meanly deal with men because they need to shape up much more than women. Judaism doesn’t want women to shut up but rather men to listen. Women should not sacrifice their lives for their fathers, husbands, or sons. Judaism is the most feminist religion ever. Does sexism in Judaism bother you? It’s not Judaism but men violating it.
Also between Jews, there is more than equality before the Law. All Jews must abide by the Torah. But Jews with a higher status or responsibility have more obligations than the others. With all the extra obligations and restrictions, no one would maintain for a month to be a Cohen who is not. (A Cohen must be the most exemplary of the flock, and bless it lovingly.)
G^d let us know, really early in His Torah, that He doesn’t want us to stay alone. He never said: Well, you have Me. Good inter-human relationships are indispensable. And also good communities. Maimonides adds that, when there are only wicked people around, it would be preferable to go live in the desert. But the Rabbis go so far as telling us that wicked people are by necessity part of a congregation. (TZibbur: Tzaddikim, Bennoneem, Ve-Resha’eem: a congregation consists of Saintly, Average, And Wicked people.) On the holiest day of the year (Yom Kippur), we begin by quietly asking permission to also have disobedient Jews present. The fact that they came shows they are not too different from the rest.
Famously, the Rabbis explain that G^d asks the Angels to discuss creating humans. This, to teach us that when we’re the boss, we should still ask those working for us for their ideas. We may be the boss but that doesn’t mean that we should be bossy. Everyone will profit from also subordinates having a chance to say what they know, see, think, and guess. Surprisingly, a wise person also gets to learn from the ‘ignorant and simple.’
The Sages go so far as to explain that when a slave owner has only one pillow, the slave shall receive it. This, because the owner would not be able to sleep anyway (that’s how it should be) if he had a pillow and his slave not. They remark finely, One who has a slave, acquired himself a boss.
But even someone so poor that he needs to sell himself as a slave, at the Sabbatical year, should go free. There are no people born to be slaves. Also Gentile slaves. They are all supposed to serve temporarily.
A certain Nation has such evil character traits that they are considered so wicked that Torah wants them all dead. Yet, Maimonides explains that there is a way out. If they would leave their evil ways, they should live.
The Rabbis tell us that G^d admonished the Angels for singing songs of praise when the Egyptian army drowned when trying to capture the escaping Jews. Moses and the Jews were allowed to sing out their relief (they are only human and they are glad to have escaped) but the Angels don’t have this freedom. These Egyptians are also My [dear] handiwork.
Moreover, we Jews are told by Moses that we should not reject an Egyptian since we enjoyed hospitality in his land. Never mind the slavery.
Dozens of times, the Torah tells us to protect the socially weak. This was millennia before Black Lives Matter and Pride Marches. Abraham is told to obey his wife in everything, a model to follow by all Jewish men. As an even greater shocking equalizer, the Rabbis teach that, even when a fully righteous person pursues a wicked person, G^d sides with the pursued. And of every great person, even Moses, imperfection is highlighted to say, improvement is expected of everyone, but perfection is not of this world.
The Torah tells us that a rich person can bring a less expensive donation to the Altar than a rich person. And when we all need to contribute, the rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less.
Judges must be completely impartial. They cannot protect the interests of the powerful nor ignore the interests of the wealthy — though they may plead with the rich to go mild on a poor party. But they cannot bend the truth out of sympathy or antipathy, because they like or dislike one side.
There are differences in talents. But they are for taking responsibility and acknowledgment, not for controlling others or jealousy. Each has their own indispensable task in life, something no one could do as well as you. Therefore, even in our differences, we are equals.
Despite being oppressed for millennia and treated as the pariahs of the world, and despite having been charged with a higher responsibility than most people, Jews learn that a sinning Jew is less than a righteous Gentile. (The persecutions made for some resentment, distrust, and antagonistic writings. But the Sages of the Talmud show the pure attitude to Gentiles.)
People’s Fundamental Equality
Rabbis, typically, in their sermons, talk about “we,” not “you.” Some unusually great rabbis walk like an emperor and talk to you like a friend.
No amount of words can describe sufficiently the importance of humility in Judaism. The Torah notes that the greatest of all, Moses, was also the most humble. Humble doesn’t mean thinking you’re worth nothing. It means that your relative importance doesn’t make you especially entitled. We may have to especially honor some others but that is to make us well-behaved, not to make the honored person feel elevated above us.
Once, students almost trampled each other to catch a glimpse of a visiting great rabbi. The head of the dynasty was pained by the disregard these zealots seemed to have for each other. He asked them to calm down and regard the other students as Torah scrolls. A Torah scroll is so holy that you can’t put any document on top of it. One student inquired: But one is allowed to put a Torah scroll on a Torah scroll, no? The rabbi explained: I asked you to regard the others as Torah scrolls — not yourself.
In the Main Prayer of the High Holidays, we ask G^d to unite all purified Jews and all cleansed Gentiles into one bundle of people. We pray for the good of everyone, not just for us. We are all created in the Image of G^d. There never existed a complete saint. We each live by the grace of G^d.
The Rabbis tell us that one reason we are told about the origin of humans (Adam and Eve) is so that no one can claim to be of higher ancestry.
Maimonides explains that a good person is someone whose majority of deeds are good; a wicked person, someone whose majority of deeds are wicked. There are not two types of morally unequal people. Although we also see that someone can dedicate himself so much to evil that it becomes very difficult to change course and rejoin humankind. The Rabbis explain that a certain level of evilness removes one from the predicate human. And that a certain level of dishonesty (when words lose all meaning) will make that G^d doesn’t listen to liars’ prayers anymore.
Someone (m/f) who did something very wicked shouldn’t be discarded as inferior. He needs to admit, pay damages as much as possible, pay his debt to society, resolve to never do that again, and ask G^d and people for forgiveness without demands that he’s entitled to that. He could dedicate his life to educating others not to do such things. He might be unable to undo the evil but he can turn around his moral level. On top of that, never forget that no one is totally bad or totally good. We’re all mosaics.
When we find ourselves in the desert with just enough water to get out of there alive but with one other person, what to do? Would you both drink half the water, you both would die. Who gets to drink? The Sages say: the one whose water it is. G^d wants him to survive. Even if the other is his father, son, or the Messiah, you drink. I think that that is also logically the best solution. Otherwise, the most selfish person would survive.
We’re not allowed to kill an innocent person to save our own skin. The Sages ask rhetorically, Is your blood redder than the blood of the other?
The Sages teach that when we save one person’s life, it is as if we saved the whole world. It doesn’t say: “One important person’s life.” Neither can we rob a demented dying person without loved ones from his organs to save the life of a young saintly brilliant promising person.
A little pride goes a long way. But the Mishna tells us not to take so much pride even when we would manage to do the most important job in the Universe, to learn Torah. That is nothing special since that’s what we were created for. The job of the Jews is to teach and arrogant teachers are worse than worthless. Humility is not important because it’s more decent or pleasant but rather because it’s a better reflection of the truth.
It’s often (mistakenly) assumed that religious Jews are holier than self-identified irreligious Jews. But, the most important Commandments are between people, not between people and G^d. Collectively, secular Jews spend more energy on being nice to people. They often don’t even know how religious that is. And, religious Jews know how dear and important religious rituals and Commandments toward G^d are, and many secular Jews do not. (All Jews are responsible for each other.) So, the former are most responsible for not teaching the latter. But also, more than the religious need to teach the others Torah and to pray, the secular need to teach the others to be considerate and friendly. And, frequently, the way we religious Jews take religion can repulse secular Jews. If the restaurant is good, people will eat there — don’t blame those who stay away. So, the supposedly meritorious religious Jews might be the less meritorious ones.
And be very careful with judging people. Someone too stingy to give 10 cents to charity could give his life defending Israel. Or could be giving charity in silence. While the saintly person could be a fake pretender.
And thus we learn on and on, that there are no two qualities in people.
There is one G^d, one Universe, and also only one Humanity. There are no two gods, one for good and one for evil, and there are no two kinds of people, one good and one evil, or one important and one less important. Good and wicked are two impulses we each have, not two groups of people. The Torah gave us the foundation for democracy. Remember this.