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Daniel D. Stuhlman

Mishpatim — Responsibilities and Rights

Shabbat Shalom
Parashat Mishpatim Shabbat Shekelim and Blessing of the new moon for Adar.  February 18, 2023

The American Jewish World Service believes that recognizing human rights is an essential step in building just societies. People should be empowered to pursue their own destinies and have a voice in shaping their future. Last week I mentioned that the seven Noahide laws require us to have a system of justice. This is only one part of the picture.  The picture below is a U.S. silver dollar.  Notice the word “liberty” at the top and on the left “In God We Trust.”  The concept of “Liberty” connects to the words in Hatikvah, עם חופשי, a nation free of foreign domination.

Photo by Daniel Stuhlman from my collection.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, adopted by the United Nations as a response to the Holocaust, Shares much in common with the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in the Divine image. Every person is infinitely valuable and deserving of respect. Shmuel Katzin, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, counts among his work for human rights the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He wrote that it should have been called the “Declaration of Human Responsibilities.”  “Rights, privileges, and respect” require responsibility.  Liberty is not a guarantee. Liberty and respect must be earned.  Each party has responsibilities.

Jewish tradition teaches us parents have the responsibility to educate their children. Education is a “right” only as a reminder that parents and communities must establish proper schools. The rights in the Constitution, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” require a focus on possibility. The right to life requires the responsibilities of taking care of your health, welfare, and physical security.

The right to sustenance requires the responsibility to earn a living, in order to buy and prepare food and clothing. The right to having a proper home requires the responsibility to take care of the home.

Civil law is about responsibilities more than rights.  “Rights” are a theoretical basis for laws that deal with the practical responsibilities to create a society that trusts in God and treats everyone with justice and fairness.

I learned of the custom in some synagogues to give aliyot to lawyers this week. Lawyers are the partners who help in the creation and enforcement of laws in its interpretation. However, “na-aseh vi-nishman” (listen and act) goes against the legal advice of “don’t sign anything before reading it carefully.” While the laws of civil interaction may seem like “natural law,” they are part of Divine law.  Divine law makes sensitivity to all human life into a moral and religious imperative.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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