Jewish Core Principles of Human Rights


compiled by Rabbi Sid Schwarz


 Is "Love" Enough?

Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b

Translation Original
Rabbi Akiva (second century CE) taught: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus, 19) This is the most important rule in the Torah." Ben Azzai says: "This is the book of chronologies... Man was created in the image of God.' (Genesis, 5) That is an even greater principle so that one should not say 'Because I have been humiliated, let my friend be cursed with me'.
ואהבת לרעך כמוך ר' עקיבה או' זהו כלל גדול בתורה בן עזאי אומ' זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה שמא יעני לא כנולד הוא

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What are these two sages are arguing over? What's the difference between the two positions?
2. Whose argument is more supportive of active engagement in human rights? Why?

"Standing idly by"

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a

Translation Original
How do we know that if a person sees another person drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, s/he is bound to save him? From the verse, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” (Leviticus 19:16). [AJWS translation]
מניין לרואה את חבירו שהוא טובע בנהר, או חיה גוררתו, או לסטין באין עליו, שהוא חייב להצילו - תלמוד לומר לא תעמד על דם רעך (ויקרא י"ט).

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who qualifies as a "reacha" here? Are there any hints in the text? 

Our Universe of Obligation--an equivocal reading

A) Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5

Translation Original
Therefore, humans were created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul (of Israel), Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul (of Israel), Scripture accounts it as if she had saved a full world. And for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to his or her fellow, "My parent is greater than yours;" and that heretics should not say, "There are many powers in Heaven." Again, to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, for one stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, "For my sake the world was created."
לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחד (מישראל) מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת (מישראל) מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא ומפני שלום הבריות שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך ושלא יהו מינין אומרים הרבה רשויות בשמים ולהגיד גדולתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכולן דומין זה לזה ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What lessons can we learn from the fact that people were created individually?
2. What is the value in each of us reminding ourselves that for our sake the world was created? How does this realization affect the way we interact with the world?
3. What's the story with "of Israel" being in brackets? 

B) BabylonianTalmud, Gittin 61a

Translation Original
Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.
ת"ר: מפרנסים עניי נכרים עם עניי ישראל, ומבקרין חולי נכרים עם חולי ישראל, וקוברין מתי נכרים עם מתי ישראל, מפני דרכי שלום.

Suggested Discussion Questions

  1. How do we reconcile this text with the common tendency to care for our own first?
  2. Isn't there Jewish textual support for prioritizing those who are closest to us?
  3. What does the "for the sake of peace" mean? Does it resolve the apparent contradiction? 

The Hillel Sandwich

Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:13

Translation Original
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
הוא היה אומר אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתי:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Examine this Mishna piece by piece. What is Hillel saying?
2. What is the overall guiding moral and ethical principle of Hillel’s teaching?
3. How can we translate this teaching into our social justice work today?