On Rights and Responsibilities

By: Benjamin Gottesman  |  May 25, 2021

Benjy Gottesman, Arts & Culture Editor

The question of rights has dominated civil discourse in recent weeks. Without weighing in on any of the issues of the day, I would like to offer a different perspective on the topic at large. 

Jews do not believe in rights. Rather, we believe in responsibilities that, if undertaken properly, ensure the optimal state of life for the entirety of the collective.

This notion is jarring for most of us; we were raised at the center of the triumph of the liberal (small “l”, everybody relax) understanding of civilization. Namely, that society rests upon the maintenance of inalienable rights. The inherent nature of the right to “life”, “liberty”, and the “pursuit of happiness” is the unwavering pillar of both American political and social preconceptions. These ideas are patently un-Jewish and are the root of the institutional rot that stains the great tapestry of modern American society. 

The Torah does not believe in rights. The Torah does not acknowledge a right to life, liberty, or happiness. Rather, the Torah creates a set of personal and societal responsibilities. There is a responsibility not to murder, which guarantees life. There is a responsibility not to inhibit one’s fellow in his service of God, which maintains liberty. There is a responsibility to be kind and just and loving, which allows for a powerful pursuit of happiness. All of Israel, as well as Israel as a whole, are responsible for the creation and care of a Godly society. 

This societal order disintegrated with the destruction of our indigenous homeland and exile. The West collapsed into a state of moral anarchy, punctuated by absolutism on a local and, eventually, national scale. When the liberal order ascended, its mission was noble and it was more or less successful in destroying the horrors of the “ancien régime.” However, it solved the issues of the day with a code of rights and not responsibilities. For a time this was of little consequence. It is now evolving into our undoing. 

Much time has been wasted deliberating whether or not there exists a fundamental right to healthcare, either in the U.S. Constitution or woven into the mythical, moral framework of Western right and wrong. This is not the pertinent question as there is an unquestionable social responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of each and every individual.

A culture of rights is a culture of unthinking selflessness. The notion of communal responsibility, while undoubtedly present in American society, is inherently external to a system of rights. People struggle to understand that somebody is being left behind if the casual observer feels protected and stable. In a society of responsibility, the very fabric of civilization compels you to act, both by virtue of the inbred moral imperative as well as in the practical understanding that failure to respond represents an irreversible breakdown in the society on which you have built your life of luxury. 

How this affects the issues on the ground, I do not know for certain. At the very least, this is a topic worth thinking about, a perspective worth considering, and a paradigm shift waiting for the intrepid spirit of ingenuity to actualize.