Judaism and Human Rights

“Beloved are human beings, for they are created in the image of God” Pirkei Avot 3:18


Image: Marc Chagall, The Prophet Jeremiah, cc: wikipedia

The Torah demands of us “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deut 16:20). As Rabbis for Human Rights, we are committed to the principles of justice for all God’s creatures. RHR is the only organization in Israel today that speaks about human rights in the voice of the Jewish tradition. We derive our authority from two main sources: humanistic Jewish tradition and from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

Human Rights and the Torah

The essence of the Torah, as summarized by Hillel’s statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” (Shabbat 31a), reflects the experience and ethical consciousness of the Jewish people. The Torah states explicitly: “Do not wrong a stranger who resides with you in your land. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens: you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Our historical experience of exile and redemption, as well as our ethical consciousness, must sensitize us to the suffering of others and compell us to defend the rights of all who dwell among us.

The Sanctity of All Human Lifehumanrights

The Mishnah teachers: “Therefore was Adam created single, to teach you that the destruction of any person’s life is tantamount to destroying a whole world and the preservation of a single life is tantamount to preserving a whole world” (Sanhedrin 4:5). And again, in the words of Rabbi Akiva: “Beloved are human beings, for they are created in God’s Image (Pirkei Avot 3:18).

Sanctifying the Name of God

Exemplary behavior of Israel is a sanctification of God’s name (“Kiddush HaShem”); shameful conduct is a defamation of God’s name (“Chilul HaShem”), a term specifically used to condemn the act of robbing a non-Jew (Tosefta B.K. 10). God’s name is sanctified through the respect we show for human worth and the dignity of creation.

Behaving Ethically

DSCF1804We are admonished to be holy by leading a moral life in relationship to all:

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger…You shall not steal. You shall not deal deceitfully and falsely with one another…You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of your laborer should not remain with you until morning…You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people. Love your neighbor as yourself, I am God” (Lev. 19:2, 10,11,13,18).

Pursuing Peaceinterfaithwork

Israel’s Declaration of Independence ends with an appeal for cooperation and good neighborliness for its surrounding states for the advancement of the whole Middle East. “Who is the greatest hero?” asks Avot d’Rabbi Natan (23:1), and answers “One who makes an enemy into a friend.”

Based on these principles of faith, we pray and wrk for peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel, when “Nation shall not life up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa. 2:4), and when “Justice will well up high as waters, and righteousness as mighty as a stream” (Amos 5:24).

Our Obligation

Our work expresses the view that as Jews, we are obligated to protest against injustices enacted against any other person, a view based on the belief that man was created in the image of God. RHR’s work reflects a Zionist commitment to the values of justice and equality, as expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  It also demonstrates its understanding of a Jewish responsibility to defy silent complicity, to bring specific human rights grievances to the attention of the Israeli public, and to pressure the appropriate authorities for their rectification.


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