Human Rights at the heart of Judaism’s most important texts
“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”Exodus 12:49
“All mankind is created in the divine image.” – The Torah
Torah’s genius is to combine two roles: a story of origins (of the world, of the tribes of Israel) and a code of law. As a result, our Jewish religio-cultural identity is intertwined with our behaviour to others in the world.
In particular, the twin commandments of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) and ‘love the stranger as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34) are historical firsts – placing all of Israel, and all those aliens who have come to live among Israel, under one law. For Israel and stranger alike, one law applies – regardless of nation, tribe, wealth or power.
Torah also insists on protections for the socially vulnerable. The refrain to protect the ‘stranger’ is mentioned over fifty times in the Five Books of Moses – along with the commandment to care for the ‘orphan and widow’.
Why this care for those who are not like us? Torah blends two answers: one derived from Adam and Eve, the other from the very roots of the formation of the Jewish people.
Twice in Genesis, Torah tells us that God created mankind in his own image. The first, Genesis 1:27, states that Adam, the first man, was formed in God’s image. Shortly thereafter, in Genesis 5:1, we read that Adam and ‘Adam’s line’ share God’s ‘likeness’. All of humanity, in all our wonderful diversity – contain within us an equal share of the divine.
Torah’s other rationale for justice involves and revolves around the theme of Israel as minority – as ‘strangers in a strange land’. God tells Abraham that his children will be strangers in Egypt. Israel’s enslavement there is presented as an abuse of Israel-as-minority by
Pharaoh. Even as Moses writes the final chapters of Deuteronomy, it is clear that Torah requires of us to care for the vulnerable, the strangers-within-us; and that one law, Torah’s law, applies to all parts of society.
“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged.” – social justice in the Prophets
Justice was a preoccupation of the prophets of Israel, from Samuel (c.1050 BCE) to Malachi (c.430 BCE). Famously, we find God, in Isaiah 1:11-17, rejecting an Israel that is ritually pure, but which lacks social justice. Instead of ‘sacrifices, oblations, incense and observance of new moons and sabbaths’, God cries out His demand:
“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.”
The prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zachariah and Malachi all return to this theme of Justice – for the vulnerable, the stranger, the widow and the orphan – in their prophetic writings.
The Rabbis and Talmudists: “He who saves one life is as if he has saved the whole world.”
The Judaism of the Rabbis is predicated on the sanctity and dignity of all human life. The Rabbis of the first millennium CE expounded and elucidated the principles of Torah into lessons on how individuals, groups and states should interact, and the obligations of society to the vulnerable.
Two of the most famous Rabbis of all time – Hillel and Akiva – are closely associated with Judaism’s requirement to care for others. Rabbi Hillel is famous for his explication of the Golden Rule – “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31A).
Another of Hillel’s axioms begins, famously, with a call for looking after our own selves – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”. But the verse then challenges us to think and act for other people as well as ourselves “When I am for myself (alone), what am I?” (Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:14)
Rabbi Akiva held the reputation of being compassionate towards the sick, the needy, and the poor. The Midrashic text, Genesis Rabbah, records a debate between Akiva and his contemporary, Ben Azzai, as to what is the ‘central principle of Torah’. Akiva argues for ‘Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself’ (Leviticus 19:18); Ben Azzai argues for Genesis 5:1 (‘This is the record of Adam’s line’- discussed above). What emerges from the debate, in a summary provided by Rabbi Tanhuma, is that any action which shames an individual is also an insult to God.
Other texts also leverage the insight that mankind was created in the likeness of God to describe the duty of each individual to other people. The Mishnah argues for the importance of each individual life, for each person is a world in him or herself and “He who destroys one life, it is as if he has destroyed the whole world; and he who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)
Maimonides: live a life full of loving- kindness, judgement and righteousness
In Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, the great twelfth century Rabbinic authority, teaches that mankind’s duty is to emulate ‘God’s ways’ on Earth (imitatio dei). But how can we know what ‘God’s ways’ are?
Maimonides finds the answer in Jeremiah 9:23 – “I am the Lord which exercise hesed, mishpat and tzedakah (loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness) in the earth. For in these things I delight.” Maimonides devotes the final pages of the Guide to explaining the meaning of these three Hebrew terms which together describe the gold standard for moral behaviour.
Judaism – a wellspring for Human Rights
The classic Jewish texts of the first 2500 years call us again and again – first as Israel, then as Jews – to accept our responsibilities as individuals and as a nation to care for other people, and act to justice, compassion and loving-kindness to those people we find in pain, or those who are vulnerable in society.
These are the foundations for ethical behaviour between individuals, between peoples, and between nations. Generations of Jews have been educated to hold these foundations in the highest esteem. In the past five hundred years, as the world began its slow crawl into modernity, it was these values which shaped the encounters between the world’s Jewish communities and the peoples and monarchs with whom they lived. From these encounters would emerge the legal principles which, over time, would be known as human rights.
Read or download Making the Jewish Case for Human Rights in the UK as a PDF