Progressively Speaking: Ranking people according to social status

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Progressively Speaking: Ranking people according to social status

Rabbi Danny Rich takes a topical issue and applies a Liberal Jewish angle

Rabbi Danny Rich
Harper Beckham
Harper Beckham

A magazine listing of persons considered most ‘socially significant’ placed Harper Beckham (pictured) – seven-year-old daughter of footballer David and fashion designer Victoria – higher than Harry and Meghan and a few places below the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

In our community, Jews may be most familiar with the ranking of Cohen, Levi and Am Yisrael, which arises from Biblical accounts and, more relevantly, the Second Temple practice of who did what.

Cohanim are, in theory, direct descendants of the first High Priest, Aaron, and were a class of officials responsible for the sacrificial and confessional rites.

Levis were the rest of the apparent descendants of Levi, a son of Jacob, and they performed other duties in the Temple, particularly guarding, singing and schlapping. The overwhelming numbers of Israelites, later Jews, were Amai Yisrael, that is not descended from the tribe of Levi, who were to support the system of Temple sacrifice and the roles of the Cohanim and Levi’im by bringing tithes and other gifts.

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE led to the demise of this tripartite ranking, except for some marriage restrictions and shul duties, which replaced the Temple as the centre of worship.

Progressive Judaism abolished all ranking systems still seen in some synagogues, whether in the order of aliyot (call-ups) to the Torah, or the kind Harper has just triumphed in. Our Judaism arose from the milieu of the emancipation, the French Revolution and new democratic nation states. Everyone is considered equal.

As for who I would list in my own personal Jewish rankings, near the top would be Rabban Gamliel I, who died in 52CE, but lived when the Second Temple and synagogues coexisted. It is said he requested to be buried in simple flaxen garments, perhaps because ostentatious funerals were common at the time, but too expensive for poor families who would flee on the death of a relative whose burial they would not afford.

From this story came the practice of the simple, unadorned Jewish coffin, fulfilling the idea that “whatever one’s rank in life, one is equal to all others in death”.

υDanny Rich is Liberal Judaism’s Senior Rabbi 

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