Many of the fierce debates within our current political atmosphere could be reduced to a very simple and fundamental question:
Do you believe that our society is a meritocracy or not?
A meritocracy is the idea that goods or power is allocated solely based off of one’s actions or achievements. Thus in a meritocracy resources, wealth, and status is a marker of something within people’s control, whether that be hard work, effort, or intellectual prowess - while the amount of inherent luck or structural inequality is minimized.
Now, like most things, this isn’t a binary. One can admit that our society is 80% meritocracy, or 50%, or 20%. However, the general idea still holds.
On average, the more one thinks that our society is a purely meritocratic, the less they recognize the urgency for governmental and other public social services. Phrased otherwise, if you believe that anyone can achieve success with hard work and it is only those who refuse to work hard who are struggling, why should the public (everyone else) step in to help your own self-caused problems?
At the outset Jewish writers and thinkers believed in pure meritocracy. Religious Jews reference this idea no less than twice a day.
The second paragraph of shema delineates a worldview where all is fair based on a God bound by precise justice. If you are faithful and keep the words of God then you will have rain, abundance of food, and a thriving society. If, however, you begin to turn away from God, the rain will stop, drought will be inevitable, and the foundation of the agrarian society will collapse.
The second paragraph of Shema is part of a larger corpus of work that biblical scholars characterize as the Deuteronomistic History. Starting with the book of Deuteronomy through the book of Kings, there are clear philosophical and theological trends that one can decipher from the laws and framing of the stories.
This philosophical trend began in ancient Israel in the early 7th century. The Assyrian empire had just wiped out the ten northern tribes, subsequently failing to overtake Judea in the south. How do we account for this disparity against the strongest empire in the world, ancient Jewish thinkers asked themselves.
It must be, they answered, that the north was sinful and the south was righteous - the north deserved to be destroyed and the south merited to be saved. Simple.
This philosophy continued as the south was destroyed a century later by the Babylonian empire. It was our fault, the Jewish leaders lamented, it was because we strayed from God that we deserved this. Books such as Judges were produced, centering around this theme of tit-for-tat divine punishment, attempting to drive home the view of societal meritocracy.
But this didn’t last long.
As the Jews went into Babylonian exile cracks began to form in the dogmatic view of societal meritocracy. Jews began to see that the rise and fall of other nations couldn’t be reduced to overly simplistic divine reward and punishment. When the Jews were eventually let back into Israel by King Cyrus (not because of their merits) new ideas began to take hold that rendered trite the meritocratic doctrine Deuteronomy.
The intellectual foundation of books such as Job and Ecclesiastes began to be formed. Books preaching messages of randomness and luck as opposed to merit and punishment. The question of theodicy, why bad things happen to good people, was now the central question of Jewish philosophy. In the Deuteronomistic construct this question would be a non-starter since bad things only happen to bad people and vice versa.
We could go on. We could talk about the fact that many scholars argue that the notion of heaven was created to assuage the gap made up by questions of theodicy once a belief in pure meritocracy broke down. We could trace the idea that we should serve God with no intention of a reward to this time as well.
Whatever one’s opinion, one thing is clear. From the 4th century BCE onwards there were virtually no Jewish thinkers who felt that the world was a meritocracy on either a communal or individualistic basis.
It’s human nature to want things to be fair. We want to think that systems, whether societal, educational, or financial are meritocratic and that our success (or lack thereof) can be reduced to something that we have merited in some way.
However, like the evolution of Jewish thought, it is evident that this is not the case. Life is fundamentally unfair and, although it is often no one’s fault, we must come together as a community to help those who are less fortunate. And, understanding that our society is by no means a meritocracy is the first step of many in the creation of a better world.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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