Thursday, 05 Aug 2021

Written by Martina Loreggian

‘The Levites, who has no hereditary portion as others have, have the right to tithe’. ‘Every seventh year a debtor has the right to see his debts cancelled and remitted’. ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality’.

These could be passages extracted from a modern version of the book of Deuteronomy, along the lines of the universal declaration of human rights. Every human being, created in the image of God, possesses an inalienable dignity and equal access to a set of rights considered fundamental for a life of freedom, justice and peace. The idea that every individual has inalienable rights is an integral part of our contemporary mentality and culture. All the battles for civilisation and social justice in the last century have been aimed at extending rights to ever larger sections of the population that had previously been discriminated against and marginalised. The right to vote for women, greater rights and better working conditions for the working class, an end to racial discrimination for blacks, the right to the same legal protections as heterosexual couples for homosexual couples. However, the Torah almost always uses a very different language, that of duties and responsibilities, instead of rights. In parashah Re’eh, in our weekly sidrah, we read:

‘But do not neglect the Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have’ (Dt 14,22). ‘Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the LORD’ (Dt 15, 1-2). ‘There shall be no needy among you—since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion’ (Dt 15, 4).

The language of the Bible reminds us that we almost always enjoy certain rights essentially because others have duties towards us. My right to a fair wage is based on my employer’s duty to pay me a fair wage, paid on a regular basis. My right to health care is based on the duty of all citizens, including myself, to pay taxes regularly, and on the duty of our politicians to administer that money scrupulously in the public interest, avoiding corruption and theft. My right to a fair trial is based on the duty of the State to establish courts, the duty of lawyers to defend me adequately, and the duty of judges to judge me impartially.

Duties and responsibilities are what keep a society together, bounding people one to each other. This is also the sense of the word mitzvah, commandment, coming from the root tzavah, meaning also join together or arrange a pile. For Judaism commandments are what bind together the Jewish people, granting dignity to every person and building a society on the pillar of social justice. Duties and responsibilities are unavoidable if someone wants to be free, because only free people are responsible for their behaviour, responding to the collectivity of each own single act. Freedom is not do what we want, but being master of ourselves and our own acts.

During this very last year many people have invoked their right to refuse the covid-19 vaccine, appealing to their fundamental right to self determination. At the same time, the Central conference of American Rabbis, with its 5781.1 responsa – Guidelines for Reopening after the Pandemic – stated that vaccination against Covid-19 is a mitzvah. Basing on three principles, refuah bedukah – proven treatment, shemirat haguf – preserving one’s own health and well-being and sakanat nefashot – avoid danger to life, the rabbis establish that ‘it is therefore a mitzvah to get vaccinated unless one has a medical reason that makes it unsafe’. Does this invalidate everyone’s right to self-determination? Certainly not.

But this is certainly not the only case where one of our right clashes with the rights of others, in this case my right to self-determination with the right of others to public health and safety. For example, my right to private property clashes with my duty to pay taxes for the benefit of the community. My right to livelihood collides with the right of others to preserve their private property, which prevents me from stealing. My duty not to kill sometimes collides with my right to self-defence, which cannot in any case be excessive and will not be without criminal consequences. Society bases on a difficult balance of mutual duties and rights. And it is this balance that grant freedom to everyone, avoiding that life transforms in a perpetual fight between my rights and your rights.

If we want to be free, so responsible people we should be able to keep the contemporary language of the Declaration of Human Rights together with the more ancient language of the Bible, that of duties and responsibilities toward other people, particularly the most weak and fragile. Being free often is not do what is our right to do, but what is right.

My hope is that more and more people will soon get vaccinated, seeing this act not as deprivation of their self determination, but has a responsible act of a free adult human being, as a mitzvah.


Martina Loreggian LBC Rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.