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I have heard from many unreliable sources that the Torah's description of mankind as being "in the Image of God" implies some level of equal standing of all humans and therefore the expectation (requirement?) of equal treatment.

  1. Is there such a Jewish value?
  2. Is this its source?
  3. How does this value inform our attitude toward and treatment of apparently Biblically-mandated morally lower classes of individuals (e.g. mamzerim)?
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up vote 12 down vote accepted

The key phrase in your question, I think, is "some level."

It is true that based on the verse you referenced, all human beings have a basic Divinely-given dignity, and we should treat them with that in mind. As Rabbi Akiva puts it (Avos 3:14, translation taken from here): "Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, 'For in the image of G-d, He made man' (Genesis 9:6)." In other places, too, we are told that G-d grieves when even wicked people have to be destroyed (Sanhedrin 39b and 46a).

On the other hand, there's no expectation in Judaism (or in any legal system that I know of, for that matter) that everyone will be treated 100% equally all the time. So there are distinctions drawn, for legal and other purposes, between Jew and non-Jew, between man and woman, between Kohen and non-Kohen, etc. - but these are not to be allowed as an excuse to discriminate in other cases.

A mamzer's situation is actually an excellent example of this. The Torah says nothing more than that he's not allowed to marry into "the congregation of Hashem" (Deut. 23:3) - which halachah explains to mean "born Jews of kosher lineage." But he is allowed to marry another mamzer(es), or a convert or freed slave. (Shulchan Aruch (hereafter S.A.), Even HaEzer 4:1,13,22)

In most other respects, though, we treat him like any other Jew. He can get an aliyah to the Torah (S.A., Orach Chaim 282:3); sit on a beis din for anything except capital cases (Rambam, Laws of Sanhedrin 2:9 and 11:11); inherit his father's property, including the double portion if he's a firstborn (S.A., Choshen Mishpat 276:6 and 277:10); etc. If he is a Torah scholar, he even outranks other Jews who are not scholars, insofar as being earlier in line to receive charity (S.A., Yoreh De'ah 251:9).

In short, then, we try to prevent his having to shed "the tears of the oppressed" (Eccles. 4:1) - the Zohar (II:213b) in fact relates this verse to the mamzer's situation of facing marital restrictions through no fault of his own - and help him achieve as full and normal a Jewish life as possible.

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Impressive! Just curious - Did you have all these sources at your fingertips, or did you have to do a bunch of research to collect them? –  Isaac Moses Jan 4 '10 at 18:33
    
Most of them I got via searching (using TES' Tanach Plus CD). –  Alex Jan 4 '10 at 19:26
2  
Cool. Well done. –  Isaac Moses Jan 4 '10 at 19:28
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1)Is there such a Jewish value?

Not entirely. It would be nice to say that Judaism entitles all humans to a certain level of dignified treatment but that isn't true. We have a mitzvah to wipe out Amalekites. If any of the original seven nations of Canaan tries to set up idol worship in Israel he has to be destroyed as well. What's more, Judaism recognizes different rights amongst different groups. Only a Kohen can serve in the Temple. Only a Levi can help him. Jews do not loan each other on interest but can loan on interest to gentiles. And the list goes on. On the other hand, different treatment is no reason for discrimination. A mamzer can't marry a Jewess but no one has a right to deny him a job or a place to live. This is the challenge of Judaism - knowing a person's place, not more but certainly not less. (BTW the reason I don't use citations is because I do this blogging thing on the fly without my seforim in front of me)

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