Human Rights – An Authentic Expression of Judaism

With the debate about the European Convention of Human Rights and The Human Rights Act once again in the public eye, I have been thinking about what an authentic Jewish stance towards the subject of Human Rights might look like. An excellent article appeared in the JC last week by Adam Wagner (interestingly what I write here was already written before I read his piece – some around 10th December 2011 for the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – I think there’s a strong overlap). There’s lots on the web about the subject, but I felt I had something unique to add:

The debate in the Jewish community about human rights frequently turns to identifying foundational texts that enshrine ideas of human rights within a religious framework. However, the discussion in which we try and identify the universalistic texts of our tradition that seem to embody notions of human rights, important as it is, obscures some of the other important aspects of what I think also contribute to a Jewish view of human rights.

It seems to me there are, at least, three areas for consideration when reflecting on Jews and the modern commitment to both human rights and human rights legislation. I sense they are part of the contemporary idea of Jewishness in most parts of the diverse community. The three areas are: the religious outlook as articulated by modern interpretations of religious texts and philosophy; the historical experience of the Jewish world; the cultural experience of being Jewish in modernity.

Human Rights are, by their nature, universalistic such that they apply to all people in equal fashion. Though Jewish religious literature has strong particularistic currents, there are sources through which we are able to articulate an idea of human dignity and, in religious terms, the sanctity of human life. Most impressive of all is a discussion found in rabbinic literature (the first centuries of the common era) that argues the greatest principle in the Torah (the central sacred text) is not ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ because there is the possibility that you do not love yourself. Instead, an opinion expressed in the rabbinic text argues that the even greater principle is that human beings were created in the Divine image and that is the basis for their unequivocal dignity and sanctity.

You may have heard discussed that there is an issue with how we identify sources in Judaism which reflect a concern for human rights since the legal system in Judaism is couched in the ‘myth’ of obligation derived from the covenantal and collective moment at Sinai. Human Rights on the other hand, it is argued, are based on a myth of individualised will and choice located within a social contract. There is no simple solution to this apparent divergent approach and legal scholars have discussed the difference at length. However, the fact remains that obligations and rights go hand in hand, with one frequently implying the other and with a reminder of obligations (individual, communal and societal) providing a necessary wake up call to any and all to realise the rights we consider to be so important. To enshrine in law the rights and entitlements of all, including the vulnerable, and demand their protection with concomitant responsibilities of the state seems an important contribution towards how society would also add that the communitarian approach of religion can, and does, provide a helpful counterpoint to the individualism of modern rights legislation.

The worldview of Judaism has never been divorced from history. The 20th century was one in which the Jewish world was decimated by the will of a regime that embodied anti-Semitic tropes from the medieval period and modern nationalistic racism. The Holocaust was a modern incarnation of the Jewish experience of oppression and hatred throughout history. This was not the only encounter of the Jewish world with wider society, but the crusades, blood libels, pogroms, and genocide have left an indelible mark on the liturgy, ritual and psyche of what it means to be Jewish today. From that perspective, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in the aftermath of the Holocaust, is something that has, in a sense, enshrined the awareness of the international community to take seriously the motto ‘Never Again’. The Jewish community that was most assimilated and acculturated in Western Europe in Germany was the initial target of Hitler’s plan to free the world of Jews. Therefore, it is Jews who know only too well the precariousness and vulnerability of being a minority.

Finally, we turn to the cultural experience of being Jewish in modernity. This is intimately connected with the historical experience.  The emancipation of the Jewish world, the granting of equal rights and opportunities as part of a vision perhaps most strongly expressed by the rallying cry of the French Revolution ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’, also brought with a transformation of a Jewish self-understanding of their place in the world. The celebration of a new found equality in the eyes of the nation state is no clearer than in looking at the Jewish contribution to arts, culture and science. The Jewish world cherishes dearly the rights they enjoy and understands the enormous importance they play for all people, universally, even whilst jurisprudence within many parts of the Jewish community is modelled on a system of obligation and duty. The Jewish cultural experience is one that, as a general rule, comfortably balances a particular religious tradition and the universal connection to all of humankind. The possibility of an upset to this balance to any individual or minority group, including our own, is also what inspires a Jewish commitment to human rights.

I fear that the recurring discussion about the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act raised by more than one member of the present government will slowly weaken our society’s commitment to human rights in general. It seems to me, as a non-specialist, the fact that the HRA and the ECHR limit what can take place within the law is exactly the point. Their purpose is to ensure that my rights, your rights, everybody’s rights, universally, are not violated; and, moreover, that sometimes the whim of a politician should not be determinative of what is considered to be just. As a Liberal Jewish rabbi, the authentic expression of my religion is found in a profound commitment to the importance of the universal application of justice and protection of human rights for all.

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