Rights in Judaism

An article written for a Christian Newsletter by Frank Gent

I have to preface my words with a caveat: all that I have written is a personal view. I am not a rabbi. Like most people I should know more. Writing this has challenged me to discover more and put it into practice. The whole concept of "rights" goes back to the eighteenth century and Rousseau. It's a different way of looking at things. It is human-centred. Judaism is God-centred. But it is not a religion for the isolated individual. Jews live in a society, both Jewish and gentile. There interactions with each other and with their neighbours are regulated by God's teaching, as given to us in the Torah and in the Talmud. (Yes, we see both as divinely inspired. Dare I say it, in a manner similar to how Catholics see God's teaching being given via a Council, or the Pope teaching ex cathedra. What do Protestants do?)


Rights? Do we talk about rights in Judaism? I thought about it. We have duties, mitzvot, commandments, duties concerning our relationship with God, to our fellow human beings, to everything that lives on this earth, and to the earth itself. What's the difference? They're the same thing really, different sides of the same coin. Rights are egocentric - what does everyone owe me? Duties say the same thing, but make them our responsibility.

What are these right/duties for Jews? The Ten Commandments are a starting point. God here has the rights (see the first commandments); we have the duties (thou shalt not...). And the Torah (Pentateuch) has 613 commandments, the beginning of the whole concept of duties. And then the crunch point, that distinguishes Judaism from Christianity: the Talmud, that wonderful, complex and humane system for regulating human behaviour. I watched Ian Paisley on television the other evening, and it reminded me how far apart we are theologically. It's the Talmud that makes the Bible accessible for real, modern human beings, which makes the teachings of the Bible work. The Talmud makes sense. It's what establishes 'rights' and 'duties' for modern Jews. And the Talmud is still being written, it is still going on. It can seem trivial ("nose-picking in the Sabbath: yes or no?"). It can be tremendously moving (as in the responsa given by rabbis during the terrible years of the holocaust). It can also be controversial ("Is smoking permitted, when we know it is damaging to our health?" The answer is no, it's not permitted, though many might not want to accept that teaching!). The Talmud, and the whole system of halachah that is based on it, is rather similar to English Common Law. We have no Code of English Law, like napoleon would have provided. We have case law, the law of precedents. And, of course, it works. And just as in Jewish law, it is permeated with compassion. English judges, just like Jewish law, often find ways of giving judgements that are more rules by compassion than strict interpretation. Do we see them as wrong for that?

When I think hard about 'rights' in Judaism what comes to mind are the rights of the oppressed. The rights of women, of children, of the stranger, the blind, the poor, animals. Humans have dominion over the earth, but can't get away with anything, for it is all regulated by God's guidance. Torah and Talmud provide that guidance.

The rights of woman - this is how this article started. Recently there appeared in the press a report that a religious Jewish man had been ordered by the Rabbis in israel to divorce his wife because she had been raped. What an intolerant, insensitive system! Where were her rights in the shadow of such an outdated religious system, which required a husband to divorce his wife, because he was a descendant of the priests of the temple of almost two thousand years ago! Both the Jewish press and the international press were united in their condemnation. Then the newspaper in Israel that ran the original story apologised and admitted that it had been duped by a hoax. (Did that get reported in your newspaper?) The Talmud has important sections dealing with marriage, divorce and the status of women. They certainly have rights, essential in a world where even now women do not have equal status de facto with men. Parents have duties towards their children, which implicitly give the children rights. Parents too have rights - witness the fourth commandment: "Honour thy father and thy mother." Animals have rights: no cruelty to animals is ever permitted. Even eating meat is a divine concession to our baser instincts, and allowed with the proviso that we have a duty to ensure no suffering is caused to the animal. And hunting is always taboo.

"The stranger in your midst" has rights too: God's laws are not just for Jews, and some, according to the Talmud, the so-called laws of Noah, or Noachide Laws, are binding on all people in Jewish eyes: They are:

  1. to believe in one God and not to practice idolatry
  2. to lead a moral life and not commit adultery or incest
  3. to contribute to society and not to commit murder
  4. to be honest and not steal
  5. to respect God and not blaspheme
  6. to have law courts and practise justice
  7. to be kind to animals and not cruel

These are duties too, but they obviously mean that God and the whole of creation have rights too. They illustrate too the Talmudic practice of inferring the general from the particular. For example, the Torah says: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The rabbis in the talmud extended this to mean "lead a moral life."

It is similarly with the rights of others. "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind" is a quote from the Torah. For the Talmud it means far more: not to take advantage of another's ignorance, for example. Nor can you give someone bad advice. I take this to mean that I cannot be dishonest when I am writing a reference, for example.

And the rights of the poor? Here we come into interesting territory. In English we have the word and concept "charity" with all its connotations. In Judaism we have the concept of "tsedakah" which carries quite different interpretations. It is often translated as "righteousness", a word I have always found meaningless. It is also translated as "justice." That I can understand. I have a duty to support the poor, to give alms, willingly too, to help the poor to independence and self-reliance. The inspiring medieval Jewish commentator Maimonedes spelt this out most clearly, and his work still guides us today. We can see this concern with justice (or, if you really prefer, righteousness) throughout Jewish teaching. It is one of the laws of Noah. Tsedakah for me implies rights.

Not surprisingly, in view of what I have said, there is no such thing as a "Declaration of the Rights of Man" in Judaism. There is a "Declaration of the Duties of Humankind" that we know as the Torah and the Talmud. And of course, that is the covenant. Do these things and I shall keep my promises to you. It's the doing that matters. Practice, not Preaching. And, most of all, Love thy neighbour as thyself. By co-incidence (or is it?) calculated to be the middle verse of the middle book of the Pentateuch. If we all perform our duties, the rights of everyone and everything will be respected. And we shall have performed our half of the covenant with God.

Useful books that I used

The Essential Talmud, Adin Steinsaltz. Bantam, 1977

Jewish Law, Louis Jacobs. Behrman House, 1968

Jews and Christians, Jacob Neusner. SCM Press, 1991

The Book of Jewish Belief, Louis Jacobs. Behrman House, 1984