Rights and Responsibilities: How does Jewish wisdom bolster our efforts to realize human rights for all?

Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

On December 10, we will mark the 68th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document that is now more important than ever, as we confront the real and powerful threats to human rights being posed by the incoming administration in our own country, and governments around the world.

In its time in 1948, the Universal Declaration was a response to the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust—an attempt to codify the sentiment of “Never Again” into international law. The international community enumerated 30 basic “rights”—essential freedoms and liberties due to all people—in an effort to prevent authoritarian rulers from ever again trampling on human dignity and life itself.

The Declaration made a bold statement that all people possess inherent rights and are thus owed basic freedoms. It listed things that a government cannot do to you—like imprison you without trial or forbid you from speaking or practicing your religion; and things people must have access to, like education, basic sanitation, food and shelter. The “don’ts” were designed to prevent gross abuses of power like those that raged during WWII, and the “do’s” are the building blocks necessary for a just society.

In many ways, this document changed the world.

Thanks to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamentals for justice have been clear for nearly seven decades. And yet, 68 years later, genocide, hunger and brutal abuses of power still exist. And political parties that shun respect for human rights are gaining traction—from India to France to Hungary to the United States.

So what’s holding us back? Why hasn’t the universal declaration of rights led to universal realization of rights?

One crucial roadblock is responsibility. I have a right to food, but who is responsible for making sure it is realized? Me? My family? The local government? The state? When a despot infringes on the rights of citizens, who ensures that the people are protected? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights dictates that it is the responsibility of governments—and failing that, the international community of nations—to protect our freedoms. Yet this mandate is vague, broad and very difficult to enforce.

Thinking about this challenge, I looked to Jewish tradition for insights. Like the Declaration of Human Rights, the Torah too can be seen as a script for building a just society. What does it say about the concept of “rights” and how does the Torah ensure that its vision for justice is realized?

Unlike our constitutional democracies or international law, the Jewish legal system doesn’t start from the fundamental premise that people are owed freedoms. Rather, Jewish law is built on the concepts of obligation and commandment—it focuses on what individuals and leaders must do to serve God, act justly toward others and bring about redemption. When God demands tzedek u’mishpat (righteousness and justice), the Torah’s basic question is not how we must be treated to achieve justice, but what action must we each take to fulfill our obligation.

For example, though Judaism does not establish a “right to food,” Jewish tradition obligates farmers to leave a corner of their field (peah) unharvested so that the poor can gather the crops farmers leave behind. Additionally, each community is obligated to set up a soup kitchen and a general fund to assist the poor. By placing the obligation on individual farmers and on the community, this system has the benefit of being clear about how the poor will be fed, in contrast to the Declaration, which mandates the right to sustenance, without a script for how that right will be fulfilled.

The Torah’s system of obligating individuals to care for the poor could be a meaningful vehicle for actualizing the modern concept of rights by making each of us directly responsible for realizing those rights. What might our world look like if each citizen and every government on our planet took on human rights as obligations—the way we view mitzvot?

Many activists around the globe carry out their critical work out of such a sense of duty—mitzvah.

Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee lived through the horrors of Liberia’s civil war. When her government wasn’t stopping the bloodshed, Leymah took it upon herself and fellow female leaders to organize a women’s peace movement. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for acting on her obligation to build a more just and peaceful world.

Sitha Mark, a Cambodian organizer, saw hundreds of thousands of garment workers in her country work punishing hours in horrific conditions, all for just a few dollars a day. Rather than looking the other way, she felt obligated to do something, and has mobilized thousands of workers to secure better wages and safer conditions.

In Honduras, land rights activist Berta Carceres lost her life because she dared to speak out against a dam that threatened to flood and destroy land that indigenous people have lived on for generations.

These remarkable leaders—and so many more, both around the world and in our own country—act on their responsibility when they take action in pursuit of human rights. If each of us joins them, and bestows upon ourselves the obligation to vote; to speak out against racism, sexism, antisemitism and xenophobia; to continue to call on our government to protect rather than violate our rights; and to use our philanthropic dollars to effect change—we could meet all 30 demands codified by the Universal Declaration 68 years ago.

As inheritors of both the Jewish legal tradition and international law, we know that poverty won’t disappear without action and rights don’t enforce themselves. We—each and every one of us—has the obligation to make the world a righteous place, and we can build that world together.