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Shavuot Thoughts: Human Rights Were Designed For the Real World

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Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) is many things.  Among them, it is a celebration of the wheat harvest and the first fruits.  It is “Atzeret Pesakh,” the conclusion of Passover and it is “Khag Matan Torah,”  the anniversary of the Revelation on Mt. Sinai.  A favorite midrash (form of rabbinic commentary on the Torah) on the giving of the Torah (the Torah only recounts that the ten commandments were given, but the rabbis believed that Moses received the entire Torah) comes from the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 88b-89a.

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said:  When Moses ascended to the heavens the angels said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, what is a creature born of a woman doing among us?”  God said to them, “He has come to receive the Torah.”  They replied, “You want to give to a creature of flesh and blood this precious treasure that has been hidden away for 974 generations before the world was ever created?” :What is the human that You take notice and the son of a human that God is cognizant?”(Psalms 8:5) ” Oh Adonai our master, how great is Your name throughout the world ,Your glory is celebrated throughout the heavens>” (Psalms 8:2)  God said to Moses, “Give them an answer.”  Moses replied, “Master of the Universe, I am scared that they will burn me with their words”.  God said, “Hold on tight to the Throne of Glory” and answer them.”  Moses answered, as it is said, “God holds fast to the throne and spreads over it God’s cloud.:   ” (Job 26L9)Rabbi Nahum says, this means that God spread the Glory of God’s Sekhina (Indwelling Presence of God) and God’s Cloud (of glory) upon him.  Moses said, “Master of the Universe, what is written in the Torah that you give me? ‘I am Adonai your God.Who took you out of the land of Egypt.’” (Exodus 20:2)  He said to the angels, ” Did you descend to Egypt and were you slaves to Pharaoh?  What is the Torah for you?  What else is written in the Torah? ‘You shall have no other gods,’ (Exodux 20:3)  Do you live among other peoples who engage in Idolatry?  What else is written in the Torah, ‘Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.’(Exodus 20:5) What creative labor do you do that you must refrain from?  What else is written there? ‘Do not use the Name of Adonai your God in vain’(Exodus 20:7) What negotiation exists between you?  What else is written there, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ (Exodus 20:12) Do you have fathers and mothers?  What else is written there, “Do not murder” ‘Do not commit adultery’ ‘Do not steal’(Exodus 20:13)  Do you have jealousy among you?  Do you have the yetzer ha’ra (Usually translated ‘evil impulse,’ but better translated ‘base animal impulses’ which are necessary but must be directed by our yetzer ha’tov, our good impulse)  among you?”  The angels immediately gave honor to the Holy One of Blessing.

The Torah is not needed by the angels, and its place is not in the heavens because it is a guide to human beings teaching us how to deal with the challenges of human life.

The blessings surrounding “Shema Yisrael” in our daily prayers emphasize that God gave us the commandments out of love.  One theory is that this was to counter the Christian contention that Jesus cancelled most of the commandments out of love, while the Judaism was a legalistic religion bogged down in commandments.  The sages believed that these laws ultimately lift us up spiritually, or like modern day traffic lights, introduce order that we need so as not to harm ourselves.  The reason that one of the names for Shavuot is “”Atzeret “Pesakh” is that our freedom from Egypt is not complete without the Torah.  God freed us for a purpose.

As rabbis, our first responsibility in RHR is to uphold the Jewish tradition of human rights.  However, international law is a secular expression of that same love for humanity.  International law was not created to be a gun pressed against our heads, but to learn from the darkest chapters of human history and serve as secular expression of the very Jewish belief in the intrinsic sanctity of every human being.

One of the criticisms we sometimes hear as advocates for human rights is, “Well, those are lovely ideals that would work if we lived in Denmark where everything is quiet and peaceful, but they can’t be applied here in the Middle East.”  (Not sure what the Danes would say about this.)  During the Gaza war we either heard denial of actions attributed to Israel or we heard that international law was designed for World War II style combat, and to apply it to urban warfare with terrorists embedded in a civilian population is to tie our hands behind our backs and prevent us from defending ourselves.  This argument originated in the U.S. after 9/11, leading to a justification of the use of torture that RHR-North America has opposed. There is no better answer to these challenges than the one that Moses gave to the angels.

There would be no need for the Torah to teach us that every human being is created in God’s Image were this obvious to us.  It would not need to command us time and time again to love the stranger if this came easy to us.  Were we to enjoy perpetual peace and harmony, neither the Torah nor international law would need to place limits on what is permissible in times of war.  Were there no natural human desires to acquire as much as we can for personal gain, neither the Torah nor international law would need to insist that we worry about the needs of others or teach us about economic justice.  The Jewish tradition would not need to put a curb on greed or remind us that “The earth belongs to Adonai,” and that not everything in our bank account is really ours.

Our Jewish tradition and international law are necessary because our legitimate desires to find meaning and a sense of belonging through religious, national and ethnic in-groups can lead us down the slippery slope to human right violations perpetrated against out-groups. Our understandable desire to take control of our destiny and again enjoy national sovereignty as an answer to two thousand years of oppression, humiliation and wanderings can lead all to justifying our exclusive rights to the Land of Israel.  Knowing how easily centuries of persecution can embitter us against any non-Jew, the Torah makes a point of commanding us to treat Egyptians decently.

Most of the human rights violations RHR deals with have nothing to do with security, but with the our yetzer ha’ra which drives us to want more and more for ourselves exclusively, and our need for the spiritual insight to truly see the Image of God in every human being.  However, sometimes there is a real conflict between legitimate needs and human rights.  International refugee law and the Torah’s teaching not to return a slave fleeing his/her master are necessary precisely because of understandable concerns that an influx of outsiders will change the character of our state and/or create an unbearable burden on our economy.  The Jewish tradition and international law set limits to what is permissible in the name of self defense because the first impulse of almost every human being alive is to put his or her own security ahead of civilians among an enemy population.  What parent would want their children to endanger themselves when they go off to war?   If there weren’t rockets falling on our cities fired from civilian areas we wouldn’t need laws protecting civilians. If 9/11 had never happened and if Israel were not facing real terrorist threats, there would be no temptation to grasp at anything to protect ourselves, even with the evidence that torture is not necessarily going to produce accurate information.  I believe that there are enough resources for all in the world were they to be divided more fairly, but we would be much less need principles of economic and social justice were the “pie” of resources so infinite and expanding that we could give to all without taking from any.  The tremendous complexity of trying to be both a Jewish and a democratic state is real, necessitating a Torah honoring the Image of God in every human being.

God did not give us Torah out of a naïve belief that we live in an ideal messianic world in which it would be easy to observe the Torah, but out of a loving understanding of our human foibles. God knows that we are capable of evil, but as the psalm quoted above continues, “You have made humanity little less than the Divine” (Psalms 8:6)  God did not impose the yoke of the commandments in order to oppress us, but out of a desire to inspire towards a better and more holy reality in which we will be the first to benefit.  We are taught that the Torah is a Tree of Life.  We are to live by the commandments, not die by them.  The authors of international law were not naïve idealists sitting in a bubble. They loved and believed in humanity, but were scarred and painfully aware of the depths to which humanity can sink.

The Torah of human rights is not designed for some other fantasy world where they are not necessary.  They are a loving gift to our imperfect, bleeding, shattered and screaming world, where they are desperately necessary.


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