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Human Rights Fallacy

When it comes to Jewish identity, there is nothing worse than having our ethos and Jewish affiliation defined by anti-Semites.  Although at times it seems as if us Jewish people are incapable of defining our own definitions of unity and community boundaries for membership, it is not actually that complicated. 

This is what I admire most about the Chabad movement.  For Chabad in particular, this is an absolute value for the purposes of their kiruv work. You are either Jewish (your mother is Jewish, or you are a Geur) or you are not Jewish (but respected no less).  

Two recent debates in Perth have brought up elements of “membership”. The first is the Maccabi issue (admission of non-Jewish members) and the second is anti-Semitism (including a number of people who wrote to newspapers and online blogs saying that Judaism is a religion, not a culture, and therefore anti-vilification laws applying to ethnic communities don’t apply).  

Aside from the astounding level of ignorance within the general community about what Jewish people are (absolutely religious, ethnic, cultural and nationalistic, all inseparably bound), there is also a lot to be understood about Jewish identity through the debate on free speech vs censorship.

One on the most insightful articles I have read for a long time is by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow.  The full text of the article is here, and I urge you to read this item as one of the most important pieces of analysis you will read for some time.

Rabbi Gurkow draws on his attendance at a Human Rights event.  He contrasts the motivations of those asserting Human Rights, with the motivations of those who uphold a G-dly inspired value system.  We know and understand that “Human Rights” is simply a humanistic inspired set of morals, and therefore subject to change.  The precepts of a divinely inspired set of morals are unalterable.  Beyond moral relativism, Jewish (and probably most other religious movements) understand that with “rights” come “obligations” and that one of the key failings of the Human Rights movement is that it does not reflect this two way process.

Rabbi Gurkow writes this as follows:

“The Torah does not protect rights as much as it mandates obligations. It does not entitle the poor to my charity. Quite the reverse, it requires me to look after the poor. Obligations denote sacrifice, which requires me to part with money that is ostensibly mine by rights. Yet the Torah entitles neither me nor the recipient. The money belongs to charity and is allocated accordingly.

This entirely different paradigm completely avoids the confluence of rights problem and its resultant clash of entitlements. From the Torah’s perspective, there are no rights to protect. There are merely obligations.”

The understanding of freedom and liberty as a “privilege” and not a “right” is also important. We can demand anything we like, but we should not always expect to receive it unless we are prepared to work for it and commit to it.  

When reacting to the Brendan O’Connell incident, many people noted, as per the linked article, that you can not legislate against feelings and opinions. Free speech is, after all, a right.  However our Torah is in fact a system of self-regulation.  It guides us on the appropriate use of speech, and we volunteer to adhere to this standard of conduct out of choice.  Remove the G-dliness from society, and anything goes.   

Again, in the words of Rabbi Gurkow: 

“In free societies, we are free to express our opinions even if they are offensive or injurious to another’s feelings. Bigots and the fair-minded are accorded equal voice so long as their words do not injure or incite injury to another’s person or property. It is true that such freedom allows bullies and bigots to prey on the weak, but in a free society such abuse is inevitable; it is the product of human imperfection.”

“Laws are as imperfect as those who legislate them and as grossly misapplied as those who enforce them. It is not practical to empower imperfect humans with the legal authority to enforce moral standards. That is a situation ripe for abuse and cannot work. The only workable solution is a democratic system of checks and balances. Imperfect as democracy is, it is the best we humans have.”

“On the other hand, a Torah society is not democratic and free; it is a theocracy. Its laws are absolutely binding on its adherents. Its authority to mandate and to legislate, to obligate and to require is truly above the law. Such power in the hands of human beings can only corrupt. The Torah has remained pristine because it derives its authority from the Creator; a supreme moral being.”

“Humans, who can barely govern their own feelings, cannot be entrusted with governing the feelings of others.”

Much will be written about Brendon McConnell when he has his day in court.  No doubt he will relish in the attention and bask in the glory of all this, while the liberal expounders of Human Rights throw forward a view that espouses the virtue of free speech.  We will be quoted Voltaire; “I don’t agree with you, but I defend to the grave your right to say it”.  

The problem is that in a society that has no limitations, we end up with inconsistencies in both the definition and application of the law.  We react to specific incidents with supposed controls, with no means of enforcement, and no sense of recourse for non-compliance.  We also give unintended attention and ironic credence to the very conduct we are trying to discourage by exposing our human judicial limitations.

I don’t imagine that anti-Semites like Brendan O’Connell can be rehabilitated very easily.   I don’t think that we have the legislative power to change his way of thinking.  The comments are correct.  We can’t legislate against thoughts or viewpoints.  The point is, if society functions in a respectable and intellectually honest way, we shouldn’t need to.  That is why personal obligation is a value that is far more important than the value of a human right.

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