Truth Be Told

What is so self-evident about all men being created equal?

I don't mind admitting it: I'm terribly self-centered. This is nothing to be proud of, so I'll hasten to add that I'm more self-centered under certain circumstances. For instance, whenever I hear or read about something being "self-evident," I'm sorely tempted to check the evidence myself.

Oscar Wilde once said, "I can resist everything except temptation." So, after quoting here last week the phrase from America's Declaration of Independence that reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," I succumbed to the temptation of checking why this document, which the Founding Fathers signed in 1776, states, as it were, that the notion of all men being created equal speaks for itself.

“The Signing of the Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull (1818)

This was no slip of the pen: Five men - Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Benjamin Franklin - were entrusted by the Second Continental Congress with the task of writing this document. The group voted to have Jefferson write it and he asked Franklin to proofread it. Jefferson originally wrote, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable," and Franklin changed it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Jefferson's choice of one particular word, "created," points us to the most likely source for his belief that the above-mentioned truths are sacred, and therefore presumably, self-evident: the Bible - specifically, the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, which seemingly offer two versions of the story of the creation of the universe, the earth, and all human and other beings.

This is the place for you to object and claim that today it is usually accepted scientific fact that man was not created per se, but evolved from species that preceded him by many, many years on the worldly time line. And you would have a point - despite the fact that it seems that these days those who believe in things like the Big Bang and evolution are a pitiable minority, at least in Israel.

Indeed, on these very pages, last Friday, the Creator made it into the Page 1 headline: "Record number of Israeli Jews believe in God." The article below stated that "fully 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that God exists - the highest figure found by the Guttman-Avi Chai survey since this review of Israeli-Jewish beliefs began two decades ago." Vox populi vox Dei have never sounded so loud and clear.

But does the reading of the biblical text - believed by some to have been written by the Almighty himself - support the belief that "all men are created equal"? It does say, "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them" (Genesis 1:27 ). This would imply that two images of God were created, but it does not as yet necessarily mean that they are not equal.

The second chapter of Genesis can be seen as either a second, and different, version of the first chapter, or an elaboration of the verse cited above. In the seventh verse, it is written: "God formed man of the dust of the ground," and in the 18th, "And God said: 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.'"

The term "help meet" is a valiant try on the part of the translators of the Bible to find an equivalent in English of the notoriously difficult-to-translate Hebrew word-coupling ezer kenegdo. Saint Jerome opted for the Latin adiutorium simile, meaning someone who offers help (an adjutant ), who is similar to the one who needs assistance; ostensibly, his mate. Writer Anton Shammas suggested once that had the Bible been written in English to begin with (after all, an omniscient god should have known that English would become the 21st century's lingua franca ) - the word God would have used here is "counterpart."

We know that God goes on to create "every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air" (Gen. 2:19 ), and that man checks their qualities by comparing them to his own, and reaches the conclusion that "there was not found a help meet for him." This seems to imply that no life form created by God was similar - or equal - to him enough to function as his counterpart.

Then we have the account of the world's first thoracic surgery performed under anesthesia, resulting in the creation of a female being, who answers the man's needs, which brings us back to where we were in Genesis 1:27: Two images of God were created, one male and one female, apparently with different biological and psychological attributes. And yet that does not necessarily mean they are not equal.

We'll skip the details about the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the escapades of the snake in the grass, and the ensuing hearing God conducts to ascertain who has eaten what and why, to reach the Creator's verdict. He states very clearly that man and woman may actually have been created different but equal, at least at first. But, as the story goes, however, very soon after their creation, God establishes a clear hierarchy between the man and the woman - who is told: "and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Gen. 3:16 ) - resulting in a relationship of inequality that will plague the genders for many millennia to come.

Most other historical documents expressing the same concept of equality are careful not to stumble on the metaphorical block of Creation. For example, the Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts - written mostly by John Adams in 1780 - states outright, in its first article: "All men are born free and equal." The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, written in France in 1789, repeats that same phrase.

Along similar lines The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, was drafted as a result of World War II, most of whose atrocities stemmed from the most regrettable fact that - all former declarations notwithstanding - there were more than a few men and women who believed they were "more equal" than their fellow men and women, and acted accordingly: with unspeakable violence. Thus, this document stated clearly: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

So, does Genesis support the notion of all human beings being born equal? Not really, since, for instance, the order of birth in the case of siblings dictates a hierarchy: first come, first served. It looks as if there is no need for some form of divine or other authority to impose such a hierarchy: It defines itself.

But it also looks like God feels he must meddle in what comes naturally, and so he tries in his lame way to redress imbalance - for instance, by preferring Abel's offering of flesh to his older brother Cain's offering of "the fruit of the ground" (Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski writes that there is no reason to assume that God is a vegan ). Cain gives vent to his rage: "when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him" (Gen. 4:8 ). A spirit of brotherhood indeed.

One could go on and on about how siblings have fought over primacy in the course of many generations, with a fervor that puts to the test the apparently not-so-self-evident truth that all men are born equal. In any event, a sober view of history, whether general or personal, leads one to realize that all men may have been born equal - but they sure don't act like it.

In my view the best, although far from last, word on the issue was written in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes, in his "Leviathan," where he both confronts the Creation stumbling block directly, and manages to avoid entangling himself in birthrights: "Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he."

As Hillel the Elder said: "Do not unto your neighbor what you would not have him do until you; this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary."