Q. The really snobby, "in" clique at my school views me as unsophisticated due to my family background. As a result, I'm sentenced to socializing with a bunch of nerds. Is it ethical for social groups to be so closed?

A. Your question describes a phenomenon I see very often. People are ultra-sensitive to the way in which they are unfairly pigeonholed in society, yet they remain unaware of the way in which they themselves tend to categorize others.

In your case, you feel that the "fashionable" students are not looking at your character, but only at superficial characteristics such as your family background. Yet you yourself are also prejudging other students, dismissing pupils who don't belong to the elite group as "a bunch of nerds".

The same phenomenon exists in dating. A young adult with outstanding personal qualities who didn't attend the most prestigious college or elite day-school may find it difficult to get dates with the "in" people who belong.. The paradoxical result is often for the single to complain that he or she is stuck dating the "second-rate" singles instead of the "elite" ones he or she seeks.

The most effective and most ethical response is to be determined not to make the same mistakes you perceive in others. Instead of dismissing the "second-tier" clique as a bunch of nerds, be determined to judge each one on his or her character. Instead of resenting being limited to "second-rate" singles, be determined to judge your own dates as you want them to judge you: by their conduct, not by their diplomas.

This paradox was the topic of Marty, a wonderful 1950's movie starring Ernest Borgnine as a single, not-so-attractive middle-aged butcher. At first Marty resents that his outward appearance and lack of charm condemn him to dates with "ugly" girls, but he learns that in fact these qualities free him to look past the superficial qualities valued by his friends and family and establish a deep connection with a young woman of great inner beauty, with whom he can find genuine happiness.

My experience is that the "Marty" phenomenon is genuine. In a status-crazed society, a clique can be as much a prison as a club. Sometimes only outsiders have the luxury of finding deeper happiness by choosing friends or dates on the basis of character and compatibility rather than on all kinds of superficial social conventions.

At the time of the exodus from Egypt, God punished all the Egyptians, "from the first-born of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first born of the bond-servant behind the grinding stone" (Exodus 11:5). This verse hints that Egyptian society was obsessed with class distinctions; it suggests a whole range of intermediate gradations familiar to everybody. Rashi's commentary adds that even the bond-servants were worthy of vengeance because they too lorded it over the Israelites. Rather than learning from their own lowly status that we should reject and overcome class distinctions, the Egyptian servants were willing to accept these distinctions because they too could take pride in their superiority over a yet-lower class.

Only the Israelites learned the true lesson of slavery. The Torah teaches us that from our own experience of slavery, we must learn the value of freedom and equality. The children of Israel went on to create a truly egalitarian society, in which every family acquired a comparable landed estate and in which no hereditary class distinctions were observed. I personally know of no Jewish community in history which recognized any kind of formal hereditary ruling or land-owning class.

Every person who feels the sting of exclusion and stereotyping is capable of internalizing this remarkable message.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.