The most important human rights charter in history

Shavuot, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah, offers us an excellent opportunity to rethink our relationship with it.

In the sea of stormy debates about the tension between Judaism and democracy, public transportation on Shabbat and civil marriage, there seems to be one thing we have almost forgotten – the crucial role that Judaism played in laying the conceptual foundation for liberal western thought, nationalism, human rights and democracy.

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John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher who is widely regarded as the father of liberalism, founded his system on three natural rights: the rights to life, liberty and property. At the beginning of his book Second Treatise on Government, he presents the thrust of how he perceives human nature through the story of Cain and Abel.

Cain kills Abel. So far, nothing new. But then Locke asks: There was no law yet forbidding murder, so why did Cain refuse to confess to the murder of his brother and try to cover up the evidence?

“Where is Abel your brother?” asks God. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” answers Cain. Moreover, when Cain realizes that he is transparent to God, he accepts his guilt, saying: “My sin is too great to bear.” What sin is he talking about if there is no law? What did he do wrong?

Cain, says Locke, knew very well that what he had done was wrong. He did not need a law book to tell him so, from which we learn that natural laws precede all other laws.

The right to life: The story of Cain and Abel is followed by the story of Noah and the flood, and even before Noah leaves the ark, God informs him of the first laws that appear in the Torah, laws based on the sanctity of human life: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man.” This is the first right legislated in the Torah.

The right to freedom: Noah’s story ends with the creation of the desired human social order: “Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth: and to them were sons born after the flood…. By these were the isles of the nations divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.” But this order of families and nations is undermined by an attempt to solidify all the nationalities into a single omnipotent nation, an empire. This is the essence of the story of the Tower of Babel, which culminates with the shattering of the tower by God and the renewed dispersal of the nations throughout the world.

Prof. Daniel Gordis, in a brilliant analysis that appears in his article “The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood,” posits Judaism as the antithesis of imperialism and as the champion of the idea of nationhood. It is no coincidence that the story of the Tower of Babel is immediately followed by the story of Abraham. Abraham serves as the model for nation-building from the bottom up – from the family unit, through the stories of the patriarchs to the national community and the story of the Exodus.

The Exodus from Egypt, the foundational ethos of the Jewish people, is first and foremost the story of a struggle for freedom, of a slave rebellion. This ethos is intertwined with 3,000 years of Jewish history that are also 3,000 years of rebellion – rebellion against the British, the Germans and the church; a series of rebellions against Rome, the greatest empire of all; and before that, against Greece. If I were asked to replace the word Judaism with a synonym, I might very well choose the word rebellion.

The right to property: Even before the right to own property is a more important right, the right not to be property. Judaism detests the phenomenon of slavery and it is no chance that the laws that follow the Ten Commandments begin with a set of guidelines limiting slavery. “Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them. If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.”

Shabbat itself is a struggle against slavery, and it is a natural right of which no one has the authority to deprive his servant or even his beast.

I could go on and on. The Torah, and in particular the Ten Commandments, is the most influential human rights charter in history. When we choose to treat it like a suspicious object, we are slamming the door on an entire universe of wisdom.

The author is head of the Tavor Leadership Academy. He holds an MA in diplomacy and security studies from Tel Aviv University, and a BA in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Haifa. In the army, he served as a company commander in one of the IDF’s elite units, with the rank of major.