Rights and Obligations by Joshua Herman

Rights and Obligations by Joshua Herman

From the desk of astoundz

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” we read in the familiar words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1]  Yet despite our belief in these rights and this equality, this has not always been the case.  Speaking during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated the challenge with these familiar words.  He said:


…We [must not] become bogged down in rights, because if we stop there we might misuse our rights. We might use our rights to trample over other people’s rights. It’s not only rights that we are seeking. We not only have the right to be free, we have a duty to be free. And when you see freedom in [the] sense of duty, it becomes greater than seeing it in terms of right, your right to be free. You have a duty to be free.[2]


Our national conversation today still centers quite a bit on the idea of rights, especially the right to free speech.  Americans are debating NFL players’ use of their right to free speech as they protest inequality during the national anthem.  Universities are debating the limits of free speech as extremist groups attempt to use their rights to propagate hateful rhetoric on campus. Yet Jewish tradition agrees with the wise words of Dr. King.  If we are to create a more just, fair, and equal society, we must focus less on our rights than on our responsibilities.

Whereas our foundational American texts refer to rights, as Dr. King noted, our foundational Jewish texts focus on our responsibilities.  In his article entitled “Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order,” Professor Robert M. Cover argues that “Every legal culture has its foundational words.”[3]  Whereas the foundational word in American legal tradition is “rights,” as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the foundational word in Jewish legal tradition is “mitzvot,commandments or sacred obligations.

This morning we read from the Torah the passage called Nitzavim, in which God renews the covenant established at Sinai with the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land.  At Sinai we were not given rights to defend, but rather commandments to observe.  Whereas the notion of rights means that we were born with rights and must defend them, the idea of obligation is that we are born with responsibilities incumbent upon us.  The idea of rights assumes that we are all created equal and must protect that equality.  The idea of commandments is that we are born subject to a power greater than ourselves. The idea of commandments is not that we are to preserve a world a world of equality, but rather that we are commanded to bring about that equality and create a world that is more fair, just, and holy.

The advantage of viewing God as granting us commandments rather than rights is that we learn that equality and justice is not an original starting point, but rather is an ideal and a goal for us to achieve.  The Declaration of Independence, with its focus on rights, begins by saying that all men are created equal.  Yet these words were written at a time when women were granted few of these rights that were listed, and African slaves brought to the colonies against their will had absolutely none.  Even today, with all of the progress we have made, can we truly say that we are all created equal?  What about the child born with HIV, or born addicted to drugs?  What about the child born to an impoverished family in the developing world, or even to an impoverished family here in Houston, who can barely access nutritional food, let alone advanced healthcare and an education? Can we say that they were born with an equal opportunity, and equal chance to obtain life and liberty, or to pursue happiness?

It can be difficult for us to face the reality that many of us in this room, by virtue of being born in a wealthy country and to parents who are able to care for our basic needs, have essentially won the lottery of birth.  We may even be psychologically pre-determined not to look at it this way.  An article this past spring in the New York Times by Harvard Economist Sendhil Mullainathan cites research which indicates that we are more able to identify the headwinds we have faced than the tailwinds that have helped us along.  He writes, “This asymmetry reflects a deeper psychological bias: We tend to remember the obstacles we have overcome more vividly than the advantages we have been given.”[4]  It is easier for us to think that we have more than others because we have earned it than it is to realize how much assistance we have been given, sometimes purely by the luck of where and when we were born.  We subconsciously want to view ourselves as less privileged than we are to avoid feeling guilt from that privilege.  Yet our inability to understand our own privilege can prevent us from advocating for justice, for it blinds us of those advantages that we enjoy but others lack.

Yet even if we can acknowledge the inequality among us that inequality can still subvert justice.  John Rawls, the famous Harvard philosopher, perhaps most famously identified this problem in his book A Theory of Justice. The Founding Fathers wrote that “all men are created equal” at a time when there was little equality between the sexes, the races, or even the socio-economic classes.  Yet for justice to be established, the rules must be drafted by those who are unaware of their own position in society, lest they rig the game to their own advantage.  This is the meaning behind Rawls’ famous concept of the “veil of ignorance.”  That veil “ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances.”[5]  So long as we are aware of our inequality, it is difficult for us to create a system of justice which truly gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.

If we view our task of establishing justice through obligation rather than rights, however, we may accomplish this task.  Human beings have a natural inclination toward self-interest.  The idea of rights is the idea that each of us can advocate for our own self-interest because we have the right to do so.  Yet this idea is based on the premise that everyone has an equal voice, but we know this is not true.  Torah teaches that justice comes not when we advocate for our rights, but when we meet our obligations to others, especially the disenfranchised in our societies.  “You shall not subvert justice for the stranger or orphan; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.”[6]  Twelve times does Torah repeat for us that we have an obligation toward the גר יתום ואלמנה, stranger, orphan, and widow.  In a society based on clan, family, and tribal units, these were the people marginalized by social institutions and lacking the protections they normally offer.  Yet who are the stranger, orphan, and widow of today?  Who are those people left disenfranchised and vulnerable by our own social institutions?  They may not have a voice to defend their rights, but Torah has a voice and it speaks loud and clear: we have an obligation to them.

When we focus on our rights, we focus on ourselves. But when we focus on our obligations, we turn our attention to others – to the less fortunate, to the vulnerable, and to the downtrodden.  It is our human nature to advance our own self-interest, but it is our obligation to advocate for others.  Yom Kippur is so often a day of personal reflection, but if we only focus on ourselves today, we have fallen short of our sacred duty.  In our haftarah this morning, the prophet Isaiah expresses this clearly.  “Is this the fast I desire?  A day to afflict body and soul?  Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?” the prophet asks.  “Do you call this a fast – a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?  Is not this the fast I desire – to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and take the homeless poor into your home…”[7]

If we fast today, pray, and repent, but continue in the future to simply vote, act, and speak in our own self-interest, then our fasting, our prayers, and our repentance has been in vain.  But if we use this day of reflection and self-affliction to recall our sacred obligations, to give a voice to the voiceless and hope to the downtrodden, then we have fulfilled our obligation.  Here in Houston we have seen what it looks like when we set aside our own narrow self-interests and work for the good of others. We have seen it in the outpouring of love following the hurricane, when neighbors helped neighbors, friends assisted friends, and strangers came from near and far to lend a helping hand.  Yet we need not wait for a natural disaster to bring us together.  We can simply listen to the words of our tradition to remind us of our obligations to one another.  And if we hear those words and take them to heart, we can work toward a day when we will finally be able to say in truth that all of God’s creatures are created equal, that we are one human family devoid of inequality, injustice, and division. ביום ההוא יהיה ה’ אחד ושמו אחד, on that day Adonai will be one and God’s name will be one.  May we each heed the call, may we each do our part, and may the year 5778 be one of greater justice, equality, hope, and peace.  Amen.


Rabbi Joshua D. Herman
September 30, 2017
10 Tishrei 5778
Congregation Beth Israel
Houston, TX



[2]Address to MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, November 14, 1956. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol03Scans/424_14-Nov-1956_Address%20to%20MIA%20Mass%20Meeting.pdf. p. 428.

[3]Cover, Robert M. “Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order,” in Law Politics and Morality in Judaism. ed. Michael Walzer.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. p. 3.


[5]Rawls, John.  A Theory of Justice(Revised Edition).  Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.  p. 11.

[6]Deuteronomy 24:17

[7]Isaiah 58: 5-7.