The Sin of Meritocracy
By Rav Natan
This summer, during the Tokyo Olympic Games, In one of the most exciting and competitive high jump finals in Olympic history, Mutaz Essa Barshim, from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi, from Italy made history.
After both cleared 2m37cm, and both failed to jump 2m39cm, the referee approached them to explain the next steps. He first suggests continuing with a jump-off, which means that they would have more chances to jump 2m39cm until one of them makes it. Before he can continue explaining other options, Mutaz Essa Barshim, from Qatar interrupts him and says:
“Can we have two golds?”
The referee responds:
Before he can finish his phrase and explain the possibilities, both athletes look each other in the eye and smile. They already knew what they wanted. Gianmarco Tamberi, from Italy jumped on his opponent’s neck to hug him and both start running around celebrating with their teams.
Their joy of sharing the gold medal is an image that must not be forgotten.
I have watched their video countless times already. It brings tears of joy and hope to anyone who sees these two athletes, once opponents, now sharing their accomplishment together.
I want to tell a story about the Cohanim in the Temple.
“Initially, the practice among the priests was that whoever wishes to remove the ashes from the altar removes them. And when there are many priests who wish to perform that task, the privilege to do so is determined by a race: The priests run and ascend on the ramp leading to the top of the altar. The one who gets to the top of the altar first is privileged to remove the ashes. And if both of them were equal and neither preceded the other, the appointed priest says to all the priests: Extend your fingers, and a lottery should be performed.”
The Mishnah goes on to describe the lottery system and then says:
“Initially, that was the procedure; however, an incident occurred where both of them were equal as they were running and ascending on the ramp, and one of them shoved another and he fell, and his leg was broken. And once the court saw that people were coming to potential danger, they instituted that priest would remove ashes from the altar only by means of a lottery.”
This story could end here, and I believe we would have learned our lesson. Unfortunately, this story is a little bit more complicated.
The Sages taught another similar case that actually happened before the case we just saw.
“An incident occurred where there were two priests who were equal as they were running and ascending the ramp. One of them reached the top before his colleague, who then, out of anger, took a knife and stabbed him in the heart.
(…) The father of the young priest who was stabbed, came and found that he was still convulsing. He said: May my son’s death be an atonement for you, God. But my son is still convulsing and has not yet died, and as such, the knife, which is in his body, has not become ritually impure through contact with a corpse. If you remove it promptly, it will still be pure for future use.”
The text continues: “This incident comes to teach you that the ritual purity of utensils was of more concern to them than the shedding of blood. Even the boy’s father voiced more concern over the purity of the knife than over the death of his child.”
This story is horrible in so many levels.
How could that father be more concerned with the status of the knife than his own child’s life?
How could a Cohen, a priest, stab another Cohen to win a competition in order to serve God?
Why didn’t they change the system after seeing the despicable outcome?
While the Temple is no longer present in our reality, I believe that this story is very relevant to our society.
Today we confess our sins in the plural form: Ashamnu. WE are guilty.
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha. For the sins WE committed before you.
Why do we come here today as a community?
There are two levels to this question.
First, we do it in plural form because we understand how difficult it is to come forward and confess something we did wrong by ourselves. We need communal support to minimize our exposure, giving us the space we need to be honest with ourselves and with God.
Second, we do it in plural form because we have all sinned as a society. No one is completely blameless while there’s so much to be fixed out there.
The main challenge I want to explore with you today is the sin of meritocracy.
While the concept existed for centuries, the term meritocracy was coined by the British sociologist and politician Michael Dunlop Young in his book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, first published in 1958. It describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central principle of society, replacing previous divisions of social class. This new dystopian society is stratified between a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited.
While some might think about this as a how-to guide, the essay is a satire, criticizing the educational system in his time. Higher education funded by the government to the best students. In his argument, he acknowledges that everyone is receiving a basic education; the best education is still being reserved to those with a decent amount of privilege.
This concept that came out of a satire, became a leading model for our modern society.
Daniel Markovits, Professor of Law at the Yale Law School, recently published the book: “The Meritocracy Trap”.
He criticizes the aspirational view of meritocracy, the idea that everyone can achieve success and power based on their own merit, as being the cause of all problems associated with this matter: it is meritocracy itself that creates radical inequality and causes so many people in society, including those who are supposed to benefit from the situation, to be worse off.
The accelerating inequality has been evolving under meritocracy’s own conditions. While many critics support the idea that the inequality that has been increasing since the middle of twentieth century is actually a result of inadequate meritocracy, based on the analysis of its indicators Markovits finds that increasing inequality is actually a result of meritocracy itself.
Another important popular voice about this issue is Michael Joseph Sandel, Professor of Government Theory at Harvard Law School.
He said: “The solution to problems of globalization and inequality (…) was that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the ‘rhetoric of rising’. It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, (…) And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.”
In short, what Professor Sandel is arguing is that even if we get to a “truly level playing field”, (…) “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.”
He continues: “It’s the tendency of those who land on top to believe that their success is their own doing, (…) and, by implication, that those who struggle, those who were left behind, must deserve their fate as well. It’s the tendency to forget our indebtedness to family, teachers, community, country, and the times in which we live as conditions for the success that we enjoy. The more we believe that our success is our own doing, the harder it is to see ourselves in other people’s shoes, the harder it is to feel a sense of mutual responsibility for the fate of our fellow-citizens, including those who aren’t flourishing in the new economy.”
Meritocracy, a system that by design only allows some of us to win. A system that by default, creates losers in our community.
I want to be clear. I am not discussing political models here today, since meritocracy is not a left or right ideology, but a principle of our society. Honestly, I do not know what model is the best for our society. This is not my expertise.
I want to change our perspectives on HOW we approach any political model. I want to raise our awareness to something that applies to big politics, as well as our education system, our private businesses, how we educate our children, and who we value in our society.
We must approach our communal challenges in a way that allows all of us to be a winner without the fear of being stabbed by other competitors or our fellow priest, without broken legs and without the inequality that defines our mundane competition.
Our sages teach in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5):
שֶׁאָדָם טוֹבֵעַ כַּמָּה מַטְבְּעוֹת בְּחוֹתָם אֶחָד וְכֻלָּן דּוֹמִין זֶה לָזֶה, וּמֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טָבַע כָּל אָדָם בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן וְאֵין אֶחָד מֵהֶן דּוֹמֶה לַחֲבֵרוֹ.
“A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy One, created us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.”
As we stand here before divine judgement, what are the qualities that we want to be recognized as part of our efforts to be better people?
Are they all the same? I don’t think so.
Each one of us comes here as you are, trying to be the best person only you can be.
Last year, I taught on Yom Kippur the story of Reb Zusha, when he was laying on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples.
He was crying and no one could comfort him.
One student asked him: “Reb Zusha, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.”
Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Court, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”
How can we take this story seriously if in our society, only some qualities are seeing as worthy for the meritocratic system?
I want to live in a world where financial wealth is not what defines us and financial inequality is not a cause for death and suffering for so many.
I want to be part of a society that rewards kindness and compassion.
I want to be part of a community that helps each other to be their best selves, without breaking their leg or stabbing their hearts.
Can we have two gold medals?
Can we all deserve to be a winner?
Can we all share the blessings of good live?
Can we all be inscribed in the book of life?