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Among the interesting discussions at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa May 30 to June 5, 2015 was one that focused on the paper delivered by University of Alberta Professor Dominique Clement, author of an important book on the evolution of human rights in Canada.  His paper argues that “rights inflation” jeopardizes the very idea of human rights as a limit on state power.  Clement points out that to date there are more than 300 recognized human rights including the right to affordable internet access.  That number is growing.  In Ontario, one radical vegetarian is pressing her case that her rights would be violated if she were compelled by the academic establishment to write on any topic other than the protection of animals.

The proliferation of rights has, in the opinion of Michael Ignatieff, imperiled by trivialization the very core of rights that are necessary to life and freedom.  But this view is surely not embraced by those who have advocated for very specific rights; rights that have grown an estimated 200% over the last half-century.

Here Judaism may be particularly helpful.  Judaism does not recognize the concept of human rights.  Rather, Judaism champions responsibilities.  One of the principal ethical values in Judaism is “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” loosely translated as prevention of cruelty to animals.  The concept is manifest in the Torah itself that mandates unloading an animal that is straining under its burden (Deuteronomy 22:4).  But the commandment is not based on the assumption that animals have rights (contra philosopher Peter Singer et al) but on the Scriptural narrative that imposes upon the earliest human beings the responsibility for caring for all of God’s creatures.  Similarly, the poor do not have a right to food but those who are financially successful have an obligation to support the poor.  A wife does not have a right to her husband’s property but a Jewish husband has a duty to provide for his wife.  A person does not have a right to medical attention but a Jewish doctor has a mandate to heal.

The concentration on human rights is the inevitable outcome of the obsession with self that has become the essential hallmark of contemporary life.  People are more concerned with themselves than with others.  The demand for more rights is just the legal pursuit of self-interest.  Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that life has meaning when you extend concern to others.  While most people ask the question ‘What can I get?’ Judaism conditions us to ask ‘What can I give?’   Hence, there is no word in Talmudic literature for “rights.”  But there is a rich vocabulary for obligations.

Whether or not the outcome of the discussion of “rights inflation” will lead to any consensus on the part of academics remains to be seen.  But the fact that some scholars have now come to realize that the insistence on more rights cheapens all rights proves Judaism to be all the more insightful.

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In 1933 Cologne, Germany, a Nazi official forced Violinist Ernest Drucker off the stage while he was playing a Brahms concerto.  Eighty-Two years later, Drucker’s son, and Grammy Award winner Eugene, completed the interrupted work during a musical festival in Israel.  The elder Drucker was not present to hear his son; he died in 1993, having survived the Sho’ah.  For both Eugene Drucker and his audience, this performance of Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 7, was an example of virtuosity.  It was also a statement about determination and resolve.

Drucker was not the only Jew to have his life – not just his performance – interrupted.  Etty Hillesum was a Dutch woman of twenty-nine when she was gassed to death and cremated at Auschwitz.  She is sometimes called “the adult Anne Frank.”  Before her demise, she chronicled her life - her aspirations and achievements - in her diaries that were published in 1996 under the title “An Interrupted Life.”

Drucker and Hillesum are notable examples.  But in a way, all Jews today live interrupted lives.  Every year we suspend our normal routines for the three-week period beginning with the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and culminating with the Fast of the Ninth of Av.  (This year, July 5 through 26.) These two dates mark the dates of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temples respectively.  Together, they bracket a space of time in which no weddings are solemnized, no music is heard, and personal grooming is ignored.  Some will even restrict travel.  The tragic past in mourned in the present.  It is indeed the saddest period of the Jewish year.

Yet immediately after the Fast of the Ninth of Av is observed, the mood changes dramatically.  Hope is restored. (According to legend, the Messiah will be born on the Ninth of Av.)  The seven weeks leading up to the New Year are characterized by publicly reading passages of consolation.  Life returns to normal. 

There is a lesson here.  Sadness and gloom are never allowed to dominate our lives even though periods of sorrow may interrupt our lives.  Judaism is a way of celebrating life.  And although the celebration must sometimes be suspended, the celebration will always be renewed.

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According to the Torah (Deuteronomy 26:12-14), each Jew who brought first fruits to Jerusalem had to publicly “confess” that proper tithes were allocated to the Levite, the resident alien, widows, and orphans as well affirm that none of the first fruits were used for profane purposes and that God’s laws were dutifully followed.

The fourteenth century author of Sefer Hahinukh, an halakhic and philosophical commentary on every mitzvah enumerated in the Torah, explains the reason for requiring a public statement.  He writes that articulating our thoughts gives them importance.  And by publicly articulating the manifold blessings we receive from God, from the gifts of the bounty of the earth to the gifts of freedom from bondage, we concretize our relationship with God, expressing our thoughts in a way that gives them tangible meaning.  In other words, bringing first fruits is a necessary component of thanking God and acknowledging His goodness.  But this act itself is insufficient unless it is accompanied by a proper public statement.  Likewise, the public confession of sin plays a central role on Yom Kippur.  The Talmud (Yoma 85b) relates that the advent of Yom Kippur itself atones for all serious sins for which the guilty has repented – but only when those sins were publicly confessed (Yoma 86b).

According to the language of the confession, the finest tribute we can pay to God is not what we bring with us but when we can declare: “I have not trespassed Your commandments and I have not forgotten my responsibilities.”

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According to one of the 74 commandments that Maimonides counts in the Torah portion of “Ki Tetze,” a laborer has permission to eat while working in another person’s vineyard so long as no grapes are saved for eating later (Deuteronomy 23:25).  The Talmud (Baba Metzia 89b) deduces from this verse that the law applies only during the grape-harvesting period when grapes are collected.  However, when a laborer merely hoes the soil or weeds the vineyard, he is not entitled to eat at all.  As the Talmud picturesquely states: “At the time you put into the vessels of the owner you may eat, but at the time you don’t put into the vessel of the owner you may not eat.”

Like many statements in the Talmud, this teaches a lesson that extends beyond the circumstances to which the law applies. 


Words to live by


Many persons have a wrong idea of happiness.  It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy cause.

-       Helen Keller