Life. Liberty. Health. The pursuit of happiness. All human rights…or are they? This is where we need to establish a distinction: are human rights endowed by a Creator, as America’s Declaration of Independence asserts, or are they self-endowed by creation?
To start, what are we looking at when we say “human rights?” The most well-known human rights, thanks to the founding fathers of America, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Due to a flurry of controversial legislation in the U.S. in 2019, liberal content creators have argued that health is a human right (in response to anti-abortion measures in some states). Another popular notion is the “right to your opinion.” Are these truly rights? It’s easy to come up with a list of my rights, But is it right? Thus the problem with language. It seems best to provide clarity:
- Rights: a sense of ownership or entitlement. That’s the word we’ll use for the rest of this article.
- Right: a synonym of correct. This isn’t a big part of the discussion, but we’ll use the more precise, or correct, term going forward.
- Right: directional and opposite of left. Let’s keep this one the same.
So, when we’re talking about rights, we actually mean entitlements. Are we entitled? Yes. Are we entitled by a Creator? Emphatically no.
Torah is filled with chapters discussing entitlements to slaves, foreigners, refugees, the rich, the poor, etc. These entitlements, however, are granted by other humans. Thus, they are self-endowed by creation. In fact, the way these entitlements are written is not as if HaShem is guaranteeing this status for anyone, but rather asserting the responsibilities of the collective humanity, as well as individuals, to afford these privileges to others. It’s also quite intriguing that these entitlements are regarding freedom, dignity, respect, and life. The pursuit of happiness is notably absent, by the way. So what does this mean in regard to how the world views entitlements today?
Entitlements are not found anywhere in Torah. This is no Torah word to substitute, either. In fact, the basic liberties that we find in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights are contrary to core Jewish concepts. Freedom of religion removes the obligation to follow HaShem alone. Freedom of health choices puts lives of unborn babies at risk. Freedom of relationship goes against tznius (modesty) appropriate relationships. Freedom of speech and press leads to lashon hara (gossip).
The Torah doesn’t speak of the rights of Life, Liberty and Property. We as Jews believe that we have obligations and responsible not rights. HaShem took us out of Egypt to serve him, not to give us rights.– Rabbi Shlomo Lalezarian of InstaRabbi
We do find the word responsibility throughout the scrolls. With Torah comes responsibility. Even Noachides and non-Jews at large have responsibilities: a system of courts, preservation of life, basic morality stuff. So we don’t have the right to life. Rather, we are gifted life and then have the responsibility to preserve it at every level.
So what’s the point of this? What does it mean? It is a perspective shift for life. Instead of feeling encroached upon our entitlements we have self-granted each day, we instead must look to what our obligations and responsibilities are. We no longer ask, what’s in it for me, but rather, what more can I do? We engage with a certain transcendence in this regard, no longer worrying about the self and instead looking out for the other. We use our yetzer, our creative ability, for good instead of for selfishness.