Social movements in the United States organize around rights. When there is some urgently felt need to change the law or keep it in one way or another a “Rights” movement is started. The story behind the term “rights” is the story of social contract… making the collective arrangement the product of individual choice and thus secondary to the individual.
In Jewish law an entitlement without an obligation is a sad, almost pathetic thing… A child does not become emancipated or “free” when he or she reaches maturity, rather the child becomes bar or bat mitzvah – literally, one who is of the obligations” The basic word of Judaism is obligation or mitzvah. It is intrinsically bound up in the myth of Sinai, a myth of heteronomy. The experience at Sinai is not chosen.
A jurisprudence of rights naturally solves certain problems while stumbling over others. It has proved singularly weak in providing for the material guarantees of life and dignity flowing from the community to the individual. While we make talk of a right to medical care, the right to subsistence, the right to an education, we are constantly met by the realization that such rhetorical tropes are empty in a way that the right to freedom of expression or the right to due process are not… The “right to an education” is not even an intelligible principle unless we know to whom it is addressed. Taken alone it only speaks to a need. A distributional premise is missing which can only be supplied through a principle of “obligation”.
I believe that every child has a right to decent education and shelter, food and medical care; I believe that refugees from political oppression have a right to a haven in a free land… I do believe and affirm the social contract that grounds those rights. But more to the point I also believe that I am commanded – that we are obligated – to realize those rights.
Dedicated to a theme in the Jewish month, Moonshine is a combination Dvar Torah and springboard for learning in the coming 30 days. Moonshine - in honor of the Hebrew month’s commitment to the lunar cycle, with a hint of distilling fine spirits off the beaten track and - perhaps - intoxication.