I have my rights

Ancient peoples spoke of “the favor of the gods” but that too is a matter of opinion.

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August 11, 2019 21:15
4 minute read.
Racism is not me

‘RACISM IS not me,’ this image from the Bokra Facebook page promoting coexistence proclaims in Hebrew and Arabic.. (photo credit: BOKRA.NET)

There’s a mantra which individuals, groups and nations all recite, “I have my rights!” It sounds good. The question is, what does it mean? What are “my rights”? Who gave them to me? 

Most of the time the claim to rights is imagination. There are no innate human rights. People follow what they think will best serve their interests. It’s all subjective, a matter of opinion. If you think that your societal group, your philosophy, ethnicity or any other identifying characteristic carries with it an automatic right to anything, others are sure to disagree, and there is no principle of logic that necessitates that either side is right.

Ancient peoples spoke of “the favor of the gods” but that too is a matter of opinion. It is not, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “a general law of reason, a fundamental law of nature,” unless, that is, one holds that might is right and rights are created by bullying and battle. But the “might is right” doctrine has waned and the thinkers have not yet found a replacement founded on logic.

Religion says that rights come from God, spelled out in Scripture and endorsed by a social compact. This means that rights have two preconditions: a source in God, and the agreement of others. But what if a person or nation does not believe in God? Does it help to have a religious word (“Christian,” “Muslim,” or “Jewish”) in your title? What if there are competing concepts of God? What if no one recognizes your rights? Even if they do, it is no protection against conflict. Even if many people accept that I have rights, doesn’t the minority matter? Maybe the majority is wrong and has been influenced by the shrewd use of techniques of persuasion including social media.

It doesn’t help if some people take their claims to the United Nations unless the UN created the alleged rights, and even then the “rights” are not valid without member nations’ explicit endorsement. It’s true that the UN once issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was beautiful rhetoric, but there is no legislative sanction to enforce human rights and punish human wrongs. There is no real human rights culture, and the worst violators of human rights are in the UN itself.

In Britain in the 1960s I led a group of young people in a study of the biblical origins of human rights. We started with the Ten Commandments which declare, “Dot not kill” and “Bear no false witness.” We also looked at the Cyrus Cylinder, the Greek and Roman ideas of natural law, the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the US Constitution, the French Declaration, the American Bill of Rights, and the “Christian consensus.” All impressive, but all mere theory.

TODAY WE have the Internet, which speaks of “basic rights and freedoms to which humans are considered to be entitled, often held to include the rights to life, liberty, equality, and a fair trial, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom of thought and expression.” Again, nice and rhetorical but without bite or enforceability.

Hardly anybody has the biblical “clean hands and a pure heart.” All we have are words and declarations. We dream of a world based on human rights but it remains elusive.

“Life, liberty, equality, fair trial, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of thought and expression” – all are honored in theory but disregarded in practice, especially by the very nations and world bodies that claim to defend them. Deep down these groups know they’re guilty, but their game gets lost. They want rights for themselves but can’t accord them to others. “I have my rights!” they say. Even if they do have innate rights – a proposition which we have shown to be not really provable – what about my rights? The “rights rhetoricians” merely enrage decent people. Selfish slogans are more comfortable.
Is there an answer? Two in fact, both in the Bible.

The first changed the key word from “rights” to “duties.” Addressing the Institute of Directors in London in 1967, Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits noted that the Bible has no word for rights. The Decalogue is not a bill of rights but a code of commands. There are no intrinsic rights in the Bible, only obligations. The rich man must open his hand to give; the poor man has no entitlement to a share. Rabbi Jakobovits said, “Everyone thinks of what society owes to him, not of what he owes to society. Instead of asserting rights at the expense of others, let us assert duties at our [own] expense.”

The second answer is in Abraham’s plea to God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah so as not “to destroy the righteous with the wicked.” Milton Konvitz points out in his Judaism and Human Rights that the Bible does not use abstract words like “rights”; it deals with practicalities. The abstract principles are implied, but the story deals with real people in real situations. Generalities enable us to escape from responsibility. Nice words are good rhetoric but we are confronted with real forces in real life. We are not dealing with the dictionary but with me as a person, with my neighbor, with our street and city. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. In the examined life we are dealing not with abstractions but actualities.

The monotheistic faiths share the Bible and its doctrine. Can’t they work together to put real humans on the agenda and uphold duties rather than rights?

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.


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