The origin of human rights has long been debated. Many argue human rights come from G-d. Others believe governments grant human rights. Some argue that they have emerged as a collective social acceptance. Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1775:
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased (The Farmer Refuted).
Consider the words of Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik in “Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind.”
This key concept of k’vod habriyos, the dignity of all human beings, constitutes the basis of human rights. The maxim of “Man was endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights” was not an innovation of the founders of the American republic. These men were impressed with the doctrine of human rights which flows naturally from the concept of “the dignity of man” and the “image of God in which He created Man,” as they knew from their Biblical background. The concept of k’vod habriyos is the basis of all civilized jurisprudence, as well of all the laws of justice in the Torah. Civil law and the mishpatim (rational laws) of the Torah, on the whole, bear a remarkable correspondence for the simple reason that every law in modern jurisprudence is based exclusively upon the doctrine of human rights which the nations of the world adopted from the Scriptures. For example, it is a crime to commit homicide, to commit assault and battery, or to trespass upon another’s property, because every human being has a fundamental right to be secure in person and property against any attack, assault or molestation. Everyone has such a right since everyone was created in the image of God and consequently deserves to be treated with dignity and respect (Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man, 61-68).
John Locke, the famed philosopher, wrote, in his Second Treatise on Government (1690) that prior to the establishment of governments there existed a “state of nature” in which individuals lived in complete freedom and served their own interests. In this state each individual possessed "natural rights," including the right to life, liberty, and property. Locke explained that individuals formed social groups and governments to secure and enforce these natural rights more effectively. Locke’s thinking regarding natural rights was incredibly influential during the Enlightenment and was adopted by the founding fathers of the United States. This can be seen in the language of the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson clearly copied much of the core rights from Locke, and the Constitution, particularly in the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. The idea of natural rights became more commonly accepted over time and was extrapolated to the idea of universal human rights. One can see the similarities in philosophy in the definition of human rights adopted by the United Nations High Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “…rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.”
Locke, Jefferson and others developed the theory of modern human rights in answer to the previously dominant doctrine of Absolutism, which espoused the Divine Right of Kings (that royalty was literally endowed by G-d to rule over people, and thus that rebellion was blasphemy as well as treason). While this seems very archaic, it should be noted that it lasted until 1917 in Russia, when the tsar was finally overthrown. This line of thought, which advocated total rule by a single ruler for stability, was subject to extreme abuses. During the feudal period, for example, the lord ruled over his serfs and estates with the approval of the local church. If anyone on the manor felt wronged, the only recourse was to appeal to the local court, which was presided over by the lord himself. Often, this meant that the criminal was the judge, with predictable results.
While natural rights espoused by Locke and others worked for the upper and middle professional classes, the workers of the early Industrial Revolution were left out. They fought long and hard to match the extraordinary political power of wealthy business owners, in an effort to earn the right to unionize and earn a living wage and decent working conditions. Karl Marx and other economists and philosophers began to enunciate these ideas in the mid-19th century, but in this country it was not until the Great Depression that these were achieved, where New Deal legislation established the rights of workers to organize, have a minimum wage, and have decent working conditions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations as a worldwide model of human dignity, has many Articles that embody the ideals of Locke and the Bill of Rights. However, beginning with Article 23, there are a series of economic rights that embody the newer 20th-century economic rights.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Regardless of the origin or definition, rights are to be protected and honored. It is up to each individual, and no one else, if they wish to accept and claim their full rights or not. The rabbis teach that G-d loves one “who does not insist on his (full) rights” (Pesachim 113b). While this may seem counterintuitive or even illogical, there is deep wisdom in the teaching.
Although one may have a right to privacy, being transparent is virtuous. One may have a right to ownership, but sharing is righteous. We all have obligations that we must fulfill. But we all have rights that we need not always assert. In relationships of intimacy, we are less interested in fairness (completely even sharing) and more interested in love (giving).
Harvard philosopher John Rawls argued that society must embrace the liberty principle (that all people have equal claims on basic liberties) and the difference principle (that economic and social inequalities must be addressed by giving the greatest benefits to the most disadvantaged). Even though we all have equal rights in society (liberty principle), those with more power and privilege should sacrifice some equality to be merciful to those struggling (difference principle). Everyone has a “right” to the money they earn on their own. But the founders of the American government (and every government) have decided that each individual should give up a portion of their rights to their own property for the welfare of the collective. We see this in Article 23 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cited above.
The Giving Pledge is an effort that has attracted widespread media attention and critical acclaim. The Pledge is a group of billionaires who have pledged to donate at least 50 percent of their wealth to philanthropic causes. The campaign began with Warren Buffett, who committed to donating 99 percent of his wealth to charitable organizations, a significant amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, during his lifetime and at death, to Bill and Melinda Gates. As of 2013, more than 113 billionaires have signed the Giving Pledge. This incredible amount of money is now being used for global health programs such as The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, polio eradication, children vaccination programs, micro-financing for women entrepreneurs in Latin America, agricultural development, water sanitation, sex education, construction of schools, libraries, and hospitals, and other incredible work. This is just a single example of individuals deciding to cede a portion of their property rights to the advancement and betterment of our world.
The rabbis teach that G-d has the “right” to destroy the world (since humanity has not been as virtuous as expected), yet the Divine suspends what is fair and deserved to act with mercy. It is this model that we must emulate. We must defend the rights of the vulnerable. But also in a society where steadfast and antagonistic claims of right are part of everyday life, let us reflect, cooperate, and act with mercy and love, just as G-d does with us.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”