Where Are My Rights?

How does Ancient Jewish Wisdom interpret ‘rights’ in comparison to their usage in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights?

Randy P.

Dear Randy,

We hold the founding fathers of the United States in high esteem. Their heavy usage of the word ‘rights,’ whether in the Declaration of Independence where they stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as well as in the language of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, would have elicited the following reaction had we, or any other teachers of ancient Jewish wisdom been present: “What are you thinking, oh most respected of Founders? We understand and admire what you are trying to achieve however you are setting in motion a major problem downstream. Your citizens are going to become intoxicated with the taste of rights and that will soon be all they think of. Before you cast these documents in granite, as it were, maybe at least mention that every right must be anchored by an obligation or a duty.


That’s right, Randy, the Hebrew Scripture speaks only of obligations and not of rights. We have the obligation, for example, to help a struggling neighbor (Lev. XXX) or to honor our parents (Exodus XXX). That places an onus upon the individual. In contrast, a right is a nebulous term. If I have the ‘right to liberty,’ but someone with greater power and strength wants to enslave me, then there is no address that will deliver that right to me. In other words, it is beautiful that I have the “right” to life, but if I am lost and dying in the desert, what is the number of the person who has the matching obligation to rescue me? If I have the obligation to treat my fellow man well, there is an address for that obligation. It’s me! In theory, an unalienable right cannot be taken away, but in reality, it certainly can and frequently is ignored by those who do exactly that. Without a matrix of obligations underpinning families and societies, rights don’t mean very much.

The closest to rights that we find in the Hebraic system that provides the cement of society, is if I pay a worker for a day’s work, I have a claim upon him for that day’s work. And here, of course, there is a telephone number for the person who has the obligation to help me obtain my claim (or perhaps ‘right’). It is the local court and its associated procedures of enforcement.

But in countries like the USA, Canada, Germany, The United Kingdom and others today, if your so-called right to life or liberty on the streets of your city is being curtailed by a criminal thug or by a Palestinian “Protestor” you quickly discover that there is nobody who accepts the obligation of protecting your ‘right’. Hence, the right is meaningless—it simply does not exist.

In fairness to the Founders, Randy, they rightly assumed that the threat to the rights of citizens would come from government. They hoped that enumerating the rights very carefully, would provide sufficient protection. Sadly, that has turned out not to be the case.

With hope for the future,

Sincerely,

Rabbi Daniel & Susan Lapin


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