The right to marry, the right to adopt, the right to choose one’s gender, the right to one’s body, the right to free speech, the right to bare arms and the list of rights goes on. These and many other rights are part of the “rights conversation” which has been increasingly dominating Western politics and social order in recent years.
This phenomena has not passed over the Jewish and Orthodox worlds, with woman’s communal roles, LGBTQ’s in the community, marriage postponement, family planning and other similar questions becoming the delineating lines along which Jews have come to define their religious orientation. And, as is happening in general society, the individual rights argument is playing an increasingly dominant role in these discussions and slowly transforming institutions and conventions previously unchanged for generations.
Those trying to stand in the way of these changes find themselves, many times, defending Torah against the ‘rights conversation’. Some, attempt to reconcile the two by trying to prove how Torah’s ideals and guidelines are the true individual rights, while others try and explain how Torah defines these rights – or their parameters – differently. Until recently, I was a proponent of highlighting the rights of the community/Jewish Nation/Jewish People Throughout History, as opposed to the rights of the individual. Even so, I’ve always felt an uneasiness with these approaches, feeling they were more apologetics than anything else and lacked an independent, consistent, stance on the matters.
I recently realized why we seem to be losing the battle – within our own communities. This is because in the way in which we most often discuss these matters we unwittingly accept the premise of the arguments we are trying so desperately to reject; that people have unalienable, immutable rights. Then the question just becomes – how far do those rights extend? There is little surprise, then, that the rights conversation continues to expand and eat away at social conventions that just a few years ago were almost unthinkable.
Like many people, I simply knew something was “off” with the entire discussion but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think the reason for this is the degree to which we, in the Jewish and Orthodox world, are steeped in Western Civilization and therefore have difficulty drawing logical lines between “acceptable” rights and non “acceptable” ones. After searching for years for the elusive line between the rights which fit with Torah and those that do not and struggling with the troubling range left open for interpretation and personal biases, it finally came to me.
It is still a working theory but here it is – I’m pretty sure Torah doesn’t believe in the concept of rights. I can’t think of a single case or example in the Torah where someone has an inherent right. To anything. It seems that whenever God spoke to people in the Torah it was to let them know what they are expected to do – their obligation. You, as a parent, do not have the right to be respected by your children rather, your children have the obligation to respect you. The two are not the same thing. I don’t have the right to live as much as you have the prohibition not to kill me (or the obligation to not let me die). The Jewish People don’t have a right to the Land of Israel, rather, we have the obligation to live in it, conquer and settle it. Kohanim don’t have the right to serve in Beit Hamikdash as opposed to non-Kohanim, rather they have an obligation to do so. The more I think about it the more it seems that in the Torah itself it is all about obligations and I think this is because of something even more fundamental that lay at the core of how Torah sees the world.
Simply put, we live in Hashem’s world. We did not create ourselves, we did not create the world we live in, we do not sustain ourselves, or it, every moment of every day. As such, Torah assumes our existence is for a purpose which transcends our individual, all too temporary, lives. Our entire existence serves someone and something else – be it God, Divine Justice, Jewish Destiny or any other divinely inspired ideal. Therefore, a person’s life ought to be driven by gratitude and servitude. Our entire lives are expected to be one, long, continuous “thank you”, translated into a “what am I supposed to do”. All of this is the antithesis to some of the most foundational concepts of Western Civilization, as they developed since the mid 17th Century through the enlightenment, all the way to today with the emphasis of natural rights and the autonomous man.
I do believe that these were important ideas and key developments within Western Civilization which have benefited the world greatly and even that some of them stem from Jewish and scriptural influences. But, just because these concepts helped free Western Civilizations from the tyranny of the church, of the Monarchy or the Feudal System, doesn’t make them theologically correct and definitely not necessarily for every era and community.
I do think that when we come to Chazal’s world – the oral law and the world of Halacha – we do begin to encounter something similar to rights but the fact that in Torah itself we do not, rather only encounter obligations, outlines the fundamental outlook of Torah as being diametrically opposed to what has become the theological and political paradigm within which we live.
I realize that saying that we do not believe in rights sounds troubling. I’m not saying that on a practical level no one has any rights, rather, that when we come to think of how these discussions and debates fit with Torah we need to realize that Torah has a completely different outlook on the human condition and is coming at these questions from an entirely different perspective. I have found this line of thinking and argumentation extremely powerful when considering the topic myself or discussing it with others. It doesn’t just ‘win by points’ by arguing against a specific point, rather, it offers a completely different moral – and theological – outlook at society and the human condition. And one need not necessarily accept the Torah’s outlook as I have outlined it to understand that attacking Torah based on the individual rights conversation doesn’t make much sense, considering the different world view. Whether a person chooses to prescribe to the ‘rights conversation’ or the ‘obligation conversation’ is entirely up to them but it is important to realize the significance of that choice and the different types of societies each of them envisions and aspires to.
I do think that, many times, Halacha can come to the same practical conclusions as those led by the individual rights conversation but I think they arrive there in a very different way, which makes all the difference. (I hope to share some examples of this in the near future).
I’d like to conclude this long train of thought with the famous opening of the Mesilat Yesharim (Path of The Just): “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service is for a man to clarify and come to realize as truth what is his obligation in the world and to what he needs to direct his gaze and his aspiration in all that he toils all the days of his life”.