Sermon: The Great Jewish Class Survey

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 April 2013

It appears that everything on the BBC is now ‘great’ and ‘British’.
We’ve had “The Great British Bake Off”, “The Great British Sewing Bee” and earlier this week the results of “The Great British Class Survey”.

Built by the BBC in collaboration with some proper academics, the survey interviewed over 160,000 people to discover the real nature of today’s class system.
When, on Wednesday morning, the BBC released its discoveries, they told us that the old model of upper, middle and working class has now fragmented.  There are now seven categories ranging from the “precariat” through a larger and more complex middle class, to the “elite”.

Part of the change comes from a shift in the indicators of class being measured.  They moved away from the traditional categories – occupation, wealth, education – and replaced them with three new types of ‘capital’ – economic capital, social capital and cultural capital.  Not only wealth matters, but also one’s social relations and one’s cultural interests.
Now I’m not sure how insightful the outcome really is – I’m faintly suspicious of such categorisations anyway, find hierarchical language something of a turn off.
Though it is a relatively fun game to fill in the questionnaire on the BBC website and place yourself in this new structure, I don’t think I know more about myself as a result.

But the concept of different types of ‘capital’ – one which originated with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – that is an interesting idea – an idea applicable well beyond this survey – and, indeed, into the Jewish world.
And it got me thinking, if we were to carry out such an exercise, what would we measure?

In fact, Judaism does have – or rather did have – its very own, very ancient class system.  Though the word is very difficult to hear – it was actually not a class system but a caste system.  Unlike the BBC model it was not one based on economics or social status, with their theoretical, if not actual, scope for social mobility – but one based on birth.  The ‘capital’ in this classical model was one’s lineage.
We can see it in today’s Torah portion – Aaron and his sons, the original priests – singled out as a distinct family with responsibility for the sacrificial rite.  The Cohanim, designated as a separate class/caste – the elite, above the rest of the people, with their brethren the Levites – the Established Middle Class, let’s say- established by birth.

Even within the body of the people there were class divisions.  Among the rabbinic texts we don’t tend to study very much is an ancient genealogical hierarchy found in the Mishnah which forms the basis of early Jewish marriage law.  It presents a hierarchy of 10 genealogical classes that returned from exile in Babylon – with Cohanim and Leviim at the top, followed by the Yisraelim, and then a series of other classes – including gerim (those who had converted, who could call on no lineage capital but had a capital from conversion), Mamzerim – the offspring of a union where kiddushin – where marriage – is not halachically possible so their lineage is compromised.  And, at the very bottom, Sh’tukim and Asufim, people who couldn’t prove their lineage because the identity of one or both of their parents was unknown – entirely capital free.

This was not merely a theoretical hierarchy in ancient Jewish life, but an actual one.  It brought with it practical rules about who could marry whom.  Being part of the elite brought with it privilege and power – the political leaders in the Hasmonean Empire were the priesthood.  And most importantly it brought with it religious authority – the exclusive right to participate in ritual. To borrow language from the awesome Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal: Through their exclusive role in sacrifices, “the priests alone can atone for the people”, “the priests alone maintain the order of nature” – “the well being of the community is dependent on individuals with exclusive control over cardinal religious goods”, and their “exclusivity is guarded by exclusivity of lineage”.

We see remnants of this class system in which the primary capital is that of lineage in certain practices retained in parts of the Jewish world – the right, for example, to pronounce the priestly blessing.  Or, indeed, the giving of the first Aliyah to the Torah to the descendant of a Cohen, and the second to that of a Levite.  This is a weekly re-statement of class and caste – of the exclusive right that comes with special lineage in the Jewish people.  It is not, needless to say, the practice of this community nor others in the Progressive world for exactly that reason – that we should not retain practices that suggest that relationship with God, role in ritual is the exclusive domain of an elite by birth.

Interestingly, though they inherited it as a model, lineage was also not the capital of Rabbinic Judaism.  Though the sages of the first few centuries CE did not remove lineage completely – their understanding of Torah as canonical made that impossible – lineage was no longer the most important social capital in Jewish society.  That place was given to scholarship.  An example of this can be found in a Mishnah which devastatingly undermines the class hierarchy. The Mishnah discusses the order in which people who are taken captive should be redeemed or rescued.  They begin with a classic class structure – first the priest, then the Levite, then the ordinary Israelite and so on.  But, they say, this only applies where everything else is equal – if a mamzer and the High Priest are both taken captive and the former is learned in Torah and the latter is not, then their lineage is irrelevant, and the learned one is to be rescued.  The Judaism of the sages, out of which our Judaism – all of our Judaism – is built, which turned the priestly cult of the bible into the practical religion of today – that prioritised interpretation and engagement with the text as the source of answers and learning – in that framework, the primary social capital, the indicator of hierarchy was scholarship.

Scholarship remains a core ‘capital’ in today’s Jewish world – and it should be, though the type of learning that brings power is something we might wish to debate.
And there are other forms of Jewish capital now too – ones accessible to all:
Commitment – the willingness to give of time and energy for the good of community, for the good of the Jewish people and the world;
Decency – a commitment to ethical living, and to ethical treatment of one another – indeed, even in the rabbinic context, one’s ability to hear and respect the opinion of the other was a definer of status in the community;
and Integrity – not, in this community at least, through practice alone – not by being more frum, more observant, not a hierarchy of observance, but living a Jewish life with integrity, thought and wholeheartedness.

The great insight of the BBC Great British Class Survey – even allowing for the extraordinarily irritating name – is that the old categories of class no longer accurately describe modern Britain.  We have changed as a society – our attitudes to work, to education, to status have shifted.
And the same is true of the Jewish world also – in fact, even more than British society, we have undergone this transformation.  Once ours was a community with a rigid class system, based on the exclusive rights that came with birth.  The early rabbis sought to resist this, promoting their own priority – learning – accessible to all, though still accommodating the old model.

And now we have other forms of social capital – no longer defined by birth, by the exclusive right of one group to our ritual and to privilege, nor by a narrow definition of Jewish excellence, but by the quality of the Jewish lives we lead.
In the Great Jewish Class Survey – all of us can be the ‘elite’.