In ancient times we were divided by classes and tribes. In fact the reason why King David chose Jerusalem as the capital of our ancient land was because the city was ruled by no one tribe. It was the Washington, D.C. of ancient days.
The Torah offers a record of these divisions. “All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses, from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to the duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting…” (Numbers 4:46)
The Levites were charged with attending to the sacrificial rituals. The Cohenim, priests, were the most privileged of this tribe. In a traditional synagogue the aliyas are still awarded by this division: Cohen, Levite and Israelite. And on the High Holidays the Cohenim rise to bless their congregation. These honors are not earned. They are a matter of birth.
With the development of rabbinic Judaism, following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis eliminated most of these tribal distinctions. Privilege was earned. It became instead a matter of learning. If you studied enough, if your Hebrew was proficient and your knowledge sufficient, you could lead prayer services. A serious Jewish life, a deepened Jewish experience, became open to all who showed commitment and desire.
The Torah became not the provenance of a cherished few, but instead the possession of all. In that moment we became the people of the book and a “kingdom of priests.” We must continue to earn this title.
Rabbi Akiva did not start out as the greatest of rabbinic sages. In fact his father in law, Kalba Savua, rejected him as a suitor for his beloved daughter Rachel because Akiva came from such a lowly station. He was a mere shepherd and worked for the wealthy Kalba Savua. Legend suggests that he began his rabbinic studies without even knowing the alef-bet. And yet he studied and learned. Through hard work and devotion he became the greatest of rabbis.
His wife Rachel in turn remained devoted to Akiva even after her father cut them off. They were so impoverished, the Talmud suggests, that she was even forced to sell her hair for food. The privileged Kalba Savua rejected Akiva the shepherd. But then twelve years later Akiva returned with thousands of students. Kalba Savua now opened his arms to his son in law.
Privilege and station are earned through learning.
We discover that our rabbinic forebears upended the Bible’s system of class and tribes. Merit was achieved through knowledge. A meritocracy was born. Its foundation remains study and learning.
This is why Jews continue to have such a love affair with American democracy. Success is not a matter of birth. It is not a matter of tribe or class. It is instead a matter of learning. It is a matter of hard work and desire.
In order for a meritocracy to be sustained two things must be maintained. The gates of study must be open to each and every person regardless of lineage. And perhaps even more important, the heart of each and every person must be open to learning.
It begins not with birth but with desire.