In the “struggle for universal human dignity and equality,” the Jewish legal tradition instructs and complements the modern tradition of rights. Yale law professor Robert M. Cover argues in this 1988 article for the Journal of Law and Religion that, in contrast to modern conceptions of rights, which are primarily concerned with the protection of individuals from the power of the state, the Jewish tradition of commandments—mitzvot—concerns the duties incumbent upon both individuals and communities.
This older conception of mitzvot puts before the individual specific obligations to realize the rights of others. Cover illustrates with the example of education: The Jewish tradition of education, dating back “perhaps two millennia,” rests on the obligation parents have to teach their children, not on the rights of children to an education. The language of the modern rights tradition alone can “neither move nor dignify.” Human rights and equality are best protected when the modern rights tradition is complemented by an older tradition that rests not on what is guaranteed to the individual, but on the duty of each to his fellow man. The Jewish conception of law and our responsibilities to one another can redeem modernity’s excessive rights talk.
The struggle for universal human dignity and equality still proceeds on many levels all over the world. There is no question that we can use as many good myths in that struggle as we can find. Sinai and social contract both have their place. Yet, as I scan my own—our own—privileged position in the world social order and the national social order, as I attend the spiritual and material blessings of my life and the rather obvious connection that some of these have with the suffering of others, it seems to me that the rhetoric of obligation speaks more sharply to me than that of rights. Of course, I believe that every child has a right to decent education and shelter, food and medical care; of course, I believe that refugees from political oppression have a right to a haven in a free land; of course, I believe that every person has a right to work in dignity and for a decent wage. I do believe and affirm the social contract that grounds these rights. But more to the point, I also believe that I am commanded—that we are obligated—to realize those rights.
More about: • Jewish Political Thought • Theology
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