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Do We Have the Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?

Do We Have the Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men . . . —The Declaration of Independence

The Founding Fathers were unabashed in their assertion that it was G‑d who endowed all men with “certain inalienable rights.”1 But are human rights a divine endowment? Is there a biblical verse that promises mankind the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

No, the Torah doesn’t talk about human rights. But it certainly talks about the sanctity of human life, describing the first man and woman as being “created in the image of G‑d.”2 In Torah, all people are Are human rights a divine endowment?held accountable for their failures, king and common man alike. In fact, the leaders are often held to even higher standards than the laypeople—Moses is criticized for the smallest infraction, and kings are reproved harshly by the prophets when they act out of line. In Jewish law, the rich man and the pauper are to be treated equally before the judge. Standing by passively when someone else is being hurt is a crime. If orphans or widows cry out to G‑d because they are being mistreated, G‑d considers it a personal offense.

The principles of the Enlightenment—liberty, equality and individualism—were based upon Judaic principles. In the writings of European Enlightened thinkers such as John Locke, the Hebrew Bible is cited more than all other writings combined.3 It’s not surprising that John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations.”

The American colonists felt that their entrepreneurial and political rights were being violated—a smack in the face of modern, enlightened principles—and they weren’t going to stand for it. They fought for their freedom, and once independence was won, the fledgling and idealistic American government was committed to protecting that freedom.

And so America became a country of rights, not only our rights to freedom and democracy, but the right of every individual or group to defend its entitlements. From women to workers to minorities, each group vocalizes its expectations of people who are not in that group. And to be sure, tremendous social improvements have come from rights advocates.

But even if the American Revolution was based on the Hebrew Bible, there is still no verse in Torah that says, “And the L‑rd said to Moses, ‘Every human being is endowed with the right to life and liberty.’” On the other hand, G‑d does say, “Thou shalt not murder”4—your neighbor has the right to live.

Likewise, the Torah doesn’t say, “Ladies, these are your rights! Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.” Instead, the Torah obligates the husband to take care of his wife in ten ways, including (a) to provide her with sustenance; (b) to supply her clothing and lodging; (c) to fulfill her need for intimacy; (d) to provide the ketubah (i.e., the sum fixed for the wife by law); and (e) to procure medical attention and care if she is ill.5 Respect for animals can be inferred from our obligations towards themIn addition to the ten specific obligations, Maimonides states that “a man shall honor his wife more than his own self, and shall love her as he loves himself, and shall constantly seek to benefit her according to his means; that he shall not unduly impose his authority on her, and shall speak gently with her; that he shall be neither sad nor irritable.”6

Similarly, respect for animals can be inferred from our obligations towards them: “If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him.”7 The Talmud infers from this verse that relieving the suffering of an animal is a biblical law.8 The Talmud also says that a person can’t purchase an animal unless he has the means to feed it, and a person must feed his animals before he feeds himself.

Instead of reading us our rights, the Torah tells us to be respectful to others. The Jewish Constitution (the Torah) says, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”9 Rabbi Akiva says that this is the major principle of the Torah.10 That would be comparable to the Declaration of Independence opening with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created to treat others with love and dignity.”

But it doesn’t. Because the history of rights in Europe and America arose out of a society where most people were treated as chattel, and then demanded some freedoms and rights.

In Torah, on the other hand, the human being is considered innately free. The story of our nationhood begins with our liberation from slavery. With our inherent freedom once again intact, G‑d wants us to form a society, to be a nation. As a nation, a brotherhood of people, we are responsible for one another. The Jewish emphasis is on service, not rights. In summing up the purpose of our lives, the Talmud says candidly, “I was created for nothing but to serve my Master (G‑d).”11

Even the most unaffiliated Jews typically put service ahead of rights, without even realizing that they’re acting out the most essential Torah value. Jews are notorious for voting against their own class interest in order to bring about social equality.12 Jews are known to be extremely philanthropic; in 2010, five of the top six philanthropists in America were Jewish!13 Social welfare organizations are prolific in Jewish communities. Whether we admit it or not, Jewish people are famous for putting service before entitlement.

On a personal level, the small shift from rights to service can make a dramatic difference in our relationships. When the focus is largely about our rights and our expectations of our partner, it’s easy to be disappointed. I’m a wife and I deserve to be supported. I’m a husband and I deserve to be fed. But when the focus is on service, it’s easier to see our part in making the relationship work. Of course, there needs to be a balance, but when the emphasis is on personal contribution, there is greater humility.

A The small shift can make a dramatic difference in our relationshipsstudent of the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, entered into the rebbe’s office for a private meeting. “Rebbe,” he began, “I lost much of my wealth this year. I have a family to support. There are poor people that I support. What will I do?” The man was devastated.

The rebbe listened to his story and remained lost in thought for a few moments. “I hear only what you want from G‑d, but what about what G‑d wants from you?” he finally replied.

Being a man of sensitivity, the student immediately fainted. He was shocked by the higher truth that the rebbe had shared, and was ashamed that he’d lost sight of it. When he awoke, the rebbe blessed him with renewed financial success, and he regained his wealth.

I don’t suppose that the rebbe’s student felt a sense of entitlement. He came with a humble prayer. Even so, the rebbe reminded him that it’s natural to think about what we want from G‑d, but it’s not as natural to think about what G‑d wants from us. And when we think about what G‑d wants from us, we often find our needs being met in the process.

But if our unalienable rights are from G‑d, why do they have to be self-evident? Thomas Jefferson worded it differently: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” But Benjamin Franklin preferred the more humanist wording “self-evident,” thus opening up the definition of human rights to that which is evident to human reason. See Tzvi Freeman’s fascinating article Humanity, Humanism, Holocaust.
Gordon Shochet, Fania Oz-Salzberger and Meirav Jones, eds., Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2008).
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut 12:1–4.
Ibid. 15:19, based on Talmud, Yevamot 62b et al.
Talmud, Bava Metzia 32a–33a.
Bereishit Rabbah 24:7.
Talmud, Kiddushin 82a.
Jews were disproportionately represented in the Communist Revolution. In pre–World War II Germany, most Jews supported a left-wing government even though many were upper class and would be severely taxed. In America, most Jews are Democrats and support social welfare even if it means higher taxes.
Jacob Berkman, “Jews Take 5 of Top 6 Spots in Annual List of Top US Givers,” Jerusalem Post, 9 February 2011. Of course, considering that Jews make up less than 3% of American society, this is an outrageous proportion of philanthropists.
Mrs Rochel Holzkenner is a mother of four children and the co-director of Chabad of Las Olas, Fla., serving the community of young professionals. She is a high-school teacher and a freelance writer—and a frequent contributor to She lectures extensively on topics of Kabbalah and feminism, and their application to everyday life.
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Acton Ace LA July 12, 2016

Rescue America America was made great through its founding values and exercised its greatness more in its generosity than in conquest or imposition. But now America faces headwinds of ruthless partisanship, imperial over
-reach, and economic implosion. Who among us—at least those who are honest and not blinded by aim-less nationalism—would not admit that our nation has lost its way? . Those values—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—have produced such high levels of protection and prosperity that we honor those who have given the “last full measure of devotion”—ultimate sacrifices of life, liberty, and happiness—for them. We commemorate them because they demonstrate for us that it is possible to have faith in those values in an absolute way, beyond faith in the country itself. Reply

Jack Potsdam May 22, 2016

What Rabbi Zalman said to his student reminds me of what President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you....." Reply

Tawaunna Washington, DC January 12, 2016

Jews are notorious for voting against their own class interest in order to bring about social equality.12 Jews are known to be extremely philanthropic; to their own people. Social welfare organizations are prolific in Jewish communities, for themselves. Whether we admit it or not, Jewish people are famous for putting service before entitlement. That is not what I have experience. I find that they can excuse themselves for cheating you to make a profit. Reply

Janice November 6, 2015

Right to Life, Liberty Thanks for putting this matter in to Torah perspective. Way too many people in US demanding rights, without considering responsibility. Reply

Paul C. Philadelphia October 31, 2015

Wonderful commentary. Thank you Reply

Anonymous October 29, 2015

Very good. Thank you!! Very good article! Thank you! Reply

Rut Vega Mesa, AZ October 29, 2015

Right to Life and Happiness Hashem, blessed is He, has given the world the greatest commandment, to ove one another as ourselves, and to love ahim above all things. If only the world would apply this concept, how different life would be! I believe that the world will come to that understanding some day in the future. Unless our Creator, do something drastic to make men see that there IS A LIVING G-D who is not pleased any longer with their evil deeds. In His infinite compassion, He is still giving us a chance to change our ways, instead, corruption is predominant today. We need to pray for these changes to happen. Reply

Rivka N. Dallas October 29, 2015

Human rights in the orah Hooray for pointing this out. I have been asking people where in the Torah does Hashem say we have rights. (I know of one: in the case when a father has no sons to inherit, the daughters are given that right-conditionally.) They have no answer. Hashem gave us responsibilities, and from these arise the corresponding rights. And without responsibility, rights are hollow and egotistical. Reply

Tzvi Freeman October 27, 2015

Better Source "In the writings of European Enlightened thinkers such as John Locke, the Hebrew Bible is cited more than all other writings combined."

Something similar to this is stated in Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010. pg. 2. Reply

Linda Auburn October 26, 2015

Wow, I needed to hear that! Reply

Anonymous Toronto October 25, 2015

Rights or Obligations the late rabbi Immanuel Jacobovitz said: Judaism does not have a Bill of Rights it has the 10 Commandments. Reply