Equality Under the Law

Equality Under the Law

Some of you may remember the Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments. In the film, we often see Pharaoh, in the latter part of the film played by Yul Brynner, making a decree and sealing it with the words, “So let it be written, so let it be done.” As Pharaoh, he is both god and lawgiver. What he wants is the law.

The idea that the sovereign is bound by the law as much as anyone else comes later in history. We read in today’s portion:

When he [the king] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deut. 17:18-20)

It is clear both that the king will be bound by the law and ethical codes of the Torah and that he will have a proper humility even though he is king. Indeed, the Deuteronomic historian precedes the quoted passage with severe limitations on the perks the king may aquire:

Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (Deut. 17:16-17)

There is to be rule of law and a recognition that, while the king is the leader, he is still just a human being and subject to the rules and expectations for human beings. Indeed, we can explore the separation of powers in the Kingdom period between King, priests, and prophets at a later time; reserving for now the observation that this further limited the power of the monarch by institutional means.

No one is special. No one is above or beyond the law. This is radically different than other ancient Middle Eastern law codes, such as Hammurabi’s, where social class is very much in play. At the opening of tonight’s portion we read:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.(Deut. 16:18-20)

We formalize here the ad hoc structure that Moses set up at the urging of his father-in-law, Jethro, for a system of courts. There is to be equal justice, as we read in Leviticus:

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. (Lev. 19:15)

This ideal of rule of law and equality under the law is an inheritance passed, not just to us as Jews, but to the whole of the Western world. True, it was imperfectly followed in ancient days and is imperfectly followed today; yet it is the ideal.

We may look back to King John forced by his Barons to sign the Magna Carta, to the Church insisting that even Kings are subject to the laws of G-D, all the way to our own legal system.

The rule of law in the United States, undergirded by our basic law, the Constitution, is the basis of our society. It is why a court can rule and even if one feels the ruling incorrect, one steps back and accepts it or works through the legislature to change the law.

Yes, it is imperfectly applied, from Andrew Jackson ignoring the supreme court and usurping the rights of Cherokee to open lynchings closer to our own time. Indeed, we can argue that the rule of law, or at least equality under the law, is being endangered by the growing disparities in wealth in the United States and the increasing importance of money in politics in our own day. Yet, it was respect for the rule of law that pushed the country ahead on civil rights faster than it wanted to go. It was respect for the courts that gave us a President Bush rather than a President Gore because the people felt that rule of law was more important than one election.

Around the world, it is the countries that have accepted and follow the rule of law that are advancing. In the commercial world, it is cleptocracies like Russia that falter when their wealth from natural resources wanes. It will be the brake on China’s growth if the whims of party elites over turn the law. More importantly, it is through the rule of law and a belief by a people in equality under the law that a society can fully harness its creativity, moving forward culturally, spiritually, materially, and intellectually in a cacophony of creative conflict and interaction. Where disagreements are settled through law and persuasion and the vote.

This inheritance, that has led to so much good in the liberal democracies of the west, is directly from our tradition, our Torah. In the Perkei Avot (3:2) it is written

Rabbi Chanina, an assistant of the high priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive.

And so we must. But especially if we have a government that, as the Torah requires, gives us rule of law and equality under the law. So it is that we may see that our Torah is truly a blessing, not only for us, the People Israel, but for all of humanity.

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