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.