Life Under Two Suns


The Dialogue: Judaism & Democracy is a biweekly column by researchers from the Israel Democracy Institute’s Human Rights & Judaism project on the dialogue between the Jewish and democratic traditions.

In Western civilization, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the closest thing there is to Holy Writ. Some speak, metaphorically, of the “religion of human rights” as expressing the core identity of contemporary Western men and women.

Where does Judaism fit in? That depends on whom you ask.

Some claim that the Jews invented  the concept of human rights. For support, they draw on verses from the Torah (“Love the stranger”), the teachings of the Prophets (Amos’ sensitivity to social injustice), maxims of the Talmudic sages (“Beloved are human beings for they were created in the image of God”), and Jewish behavior in ancient times (the freedom of speech and pluralism that are the hallmarks of the Babylonian Talmud) as well as the modern era (the involvement in the civil rights movement).

Proponents of the Jewish origin of the doctrine of human rights also note, with pride, that the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, René Cassin, was a Jew who ascribed his deep involvement with the issue to his Jewish heritage.

Others assert that human rights discourse, far from being of Jewish origin, is in fact the antithesis of Judaism. The discourse of human rights accords primacy to individuals and their rights  vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Judaism, by contrast, distinguishes among human beings on the basis of group affiliation and focuses on their obligations toward others — to God on the one hand and to fellow human beings on the other.

Those who find Judaism antithetical to human rights cite passages from the Torah (the injunction to destroy an idolatrous city and exterminate its inhabitants), the Prophets (the genocidal command, implemented by Joshua, to slaughter the seven Canaanite peoples), and Jewish behavior in the past (the mass suicide of martyrs in the Middle Ages) and in recent times (the racist election propaganda of Meir Kahane, which he grounded in Jewish sources).

The debate about how Judaism relates to human rights and democratic values in general has immense implications for the Jewish present and future throughout the world. In the United States, the voices that emphasize the gulf between Judaism and human rights are contributing to the alienation of the younger generation from Judaism. Young Jews who perceive a contradiction between their Western values and their Jewish heritage may dismiss the latter as irrelevant to their lives. Worse: they may even reject the Jewish tradition on account of what they see as its essence. It is unlikely that those who identify Judaism with racism or gender discrimination will want to identify as Jews.

In Israel, the problem is even more acute. Israel is the only place in the world where Jews enjoy territorial sovereignty and, accordingly, determine the shape of the public square. Only in Israel can the law, the armed forces and the systems of social welfare and health care express Jewish values. This is why those who emphasize the gulf between Judaism and human rights tend to perceive a destructive tension between the two constitutional axes of the State of Israel: a Jewish state and a democratic state. For them, Israelis must choose between Judaism and democracy.

The issue is important for the life of every Jew in the world and for the existence of Judaism as a religion, culture and nation. It is decisive for the future of the State of Israel.

In both Israel and in the diaspora, Judaism exists under the dazzling light of two suns: traditional Jewish culture and Western civilization. Both of them circle in the sky above us; both of them guide us and illuminate our lives. When we are compelled to choose between our commitment to Judaism and our choice for human rights, we feel like a child forced to choose between mother and father. To be sure, each of our parents is a separate individual, with his or her own traits and preferences. We should not paper over this difference. But the family as a whole can function only with cooperation, dialogue and joint responsibility between the two.

This is the background for the present initiative by The Jewish Week and Jerusalem’s Israel Democracy Institute. This twice-monthly series will look at relevant issues in the United States and Israel that expose the complementary but tense relations between Judaism and democratic values.

The authors are a diverse group of IDI scholars — professors, rabbis, and experts on Judaism and culture, of different generations and worldviews. All are affiliated with IDI’s projects on Judaism and democracy, especially the Human Rights and Judaism project. It is headed by law professors Hanoch Dagan, Shahar Lifshitz and Yedidia Z. Stern, made possible by the generous support of the Ruderman Family Foundation and an anonymous donor operating in Israel. It is our hope that this series will inform and enhance efforts to perfect the world, both in Israel and the United States, in the year to come, and we welcome your comments. 

Shana Tova from Jerusalem.

Yedidia Z. Stern is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University. Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.