When I started working for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America over four years ago, I was told by our then Chairperson Rabbi Gerry Serotta that one of the goals of the organization was to make December 10, International Human Rights Day, a day of yom tov for the Jewish community. RHR-NA uses the lens of human rights, rather than social justice, to emphasize that we must take action as Jews to repair the world out of universalist, humanitarian concerns, and that such concerns are authentically Jewish.
And yet, because of concerns about the UN (meaning concerns about the UN and Israel—I don’t hear so much about either attacks on the United States or growing American isolationism), I’ve been told by some rabbis that the words “human rights” are toxic in their communities. Human rights are some amorphous code of conduct used to protect other people; no one considers that human rights are relevant in their own lives. When I hear this concern, rather than getting into a long defense of what the UN can achieve or why international treaties (Convention on Genocide! Convention on Torture! Convention on the Rights of Child—come on people, these are important!), I turn instead to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I had never read the UDHR before I started at RHR-NA. I suspect most of us have not. But when you read it, one is struck immediately by what a Jewish document it is. Okay, maybe not all of the Articles: while some of them find easy parallels in Jewish law, I suspect that the rabbis of the Talmud probably did not believe in the right to choose your own religion or predict the right to join or form a trade union. And Jewish writers have tackled, with various results, how to mesh the Jewish starting point of “obligations” with the UDHR’s language of “rights.”
But read the Preamble, where the UDHR sets forth the moral mandate for human rights. It is deeply grounded in the trauma of the years immediately following the Shoah and the atrocities of World War Two. We didn’t truly understand what kind of horrors the most “civilized” among us could perpetrate on those they considered to be lesser forms of life. It was time for the entire world to acknowledge our shared humanness, and to realize that in order for there to be hope, there had to be a shared declaration of values.
Here is the Preamble:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
Reading these words, I hear echoes of the Rabbis and of the Prophets.
Malachi declared: (Malachi 2:10) Have we not all one Parent? Has not one God created us? Why should we be faithless to each other, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?
And Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel insisted (Avot 1:18) : On three things the world is sustained: on truth, on judgment, and on peace, as it is it says (Zechariah 8:16): “Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace.”
Isaiah understood the centrality of peace for all nations: (Isaiah 2:4)
Thus God will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their swords into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war.
And Deuteronomy knew the importance of memory both in preserving the good and preventing the bad to from being reenacted: (Deuteronomy 4:9)
But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.
These are authentically Jewish hopes, and they are the UDHR’s hopes as well. Underneath it is the mandate of Genesis 1:27, that every human being is a reflection of the divine. To live out that mandate, both as individuals and as nations, requires us to be constantly challenged to see our relationships as manifesting Buber’s I-Thou model, rather than seeing our fellow people as part of an I-It relationship. It is very hard to live that way, but we know the consequences of living otherwise.
In The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Trial, Elie Wiesel wrote: “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” The UDHR is similarly aspirational in its goals; we don’t live in the world it describes right now, in fact that world may be very far away. But wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that world was within our grasp, if only we could understand that we were all created in God’s image?
Ken yehi ratzon.email print