Among the interesting discussions at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa May 30 to June 5, 2015 was one that focused on the paper delivered by University of Alberta Professor Dominique Clement, author of an important book on the evolution of human rights in Canada. His paper argues that “rights inflation” jeopardizes the very idea of human rights as a limit on state power. Clement points out that to date there are more than 300 recognized human rights including the right to affordable internet access. That number is growing. In Ontario, one radical vegetarian is pressing her case that her rights would be violated if she were compelled by the academic establishment to write on any topic other than the protection of animals.
The proliferation of rights has, in the opinion of Michael Ignatieff, imperiled by trivialization the very core of rights that are necessary to life and freedom. But this view is surely not embraced by those who have advocated for very specific rights; rights that have grown an estimated 200% over the last half-century.
Here Judaism may be particularly helpful. Judaism does not recognize the concept of human rights. Rather, Judaism champions responsibilities. One of the principal ethical values in Judaism is “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” loosely translated as prevention of cruelty to animals. The concept is manifest in the Torah itself that mandates unloading an animal that is straining under its burden (Deuteronomy 22:4). But the commandment is not based on the assumption that animals have rights (contra philosopher Peter Singer et al) but on the Scriptural narrative that imposes upon the earliest human beings the responsibility for caring for all of God’s creatures. Similarly, the poor do not have a right to food but those who are financially successful have an obligation to support the poor. A wife does not have a right to her husband’s property but a Jewish husband has a duty to provide for his wife. A person does not have a right to medical attention but a Jewish doctor has a mandate to heal.
The concentration on human rights is the inevitable outcome of the obsession with self that has become the essential hallmark of contemporary life. People are more concerned with themselves than with others. The demand for more rights is just the legal pursuit of self-interest. Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that life has meaning when you extend concern to others. While most people ask the question ‘What can I get?’ Judaism conditions us to ask ‘What can I give?’ Hence, there is no word in Talmudic literature for “rights.” But there is a rich vocabulary for obligations.
Whether or not the outcome of the discussion of “rights inflation” will lead to any consensus on the part of academics remains to be seen. But the fact that some scholars have now come to realize that the insistence on more rights cheapens all rights proves Judaism to be all the more insightful.