The U.N. vs. The Torah

Last week, I was talking to a couple of friends when one of them asked, “What do you think is a human right?”

Considering the fact that my wife has studied human rights pretty extensively, and I’ve had many conversations about human rights with her and other people, I figured I’d immediately have at least one answer. Actually sitting down and trying to think it through in the span of a quick moment I realized that there’s a reason we haven’t established an effective human rights system for the world. Sure, the UN and the Hague and all those other international groups try pretty hard. In fact, in case you haven’t been paying attention, The Hague has finally started prosecuting and convicting people. In spite of their possible good intentions and attempts, though, the world has still not fully accepted the documents claiming universal status. On top of that, many people claiming to accept them don’t uphold them anyway.

So my answer to my friends ended up being a series of statements immediately discounted by the next statement. I’ve heard many people claim all kinds of things as human rights, from individual survival to Wi-Fi, but I’m still not certain we can pin down in simple, clear, 10 commandments-like language a list of human rights that everyone in the world would respect. Too many entities pull the “cultural imperialism” card in response to the attempts of outside regulation. Although many of these entities use this card as a get out of jail free card for wild abuses of their populations for personal gain, there is definitely a sliver of truth to the claim. This doesn’t mean that individuals shouldn’t be protected against tyrannical leaders, but if we just simply boil it down to the individual we are missing some of the point.

If I were to try to just free hand draft a list that I think most people would come up with, I’d throw out there that all human beings have a right to clean water, food, housing and exercising one’s happiness, but it’s really just not that simple. What about someone whose happiness is only fulfilled by wearing other people’s skins like a costume? Is a person who continually attempts to do so worthy of a share of the limited resources society has? Even in the most individualistic society focused on making space for people with all sorts of varying tastes and desires, we’ve got to draw a line somewhere. There are just too many exceptions and specific cases that undermine an easy, pithy statement of human rights. People have known this for a long time. In fact, it’s arguable that the huge amount of specific laws in the Torah is one of the earliest attempts at clearing this problem up. As a human rights document, though, I don’t think it stands the test of thousands of years in all instances.

In last week’s Torah portion, Emor (Lev 21:1-24:23) a pretty serious line of this nature is drawn. An Israelite and a half-Israelite, half-Egyptian get in a fight, which ends when the half-Israelite, half-Egyptian blasphemes the Name of God.  I’m sure there’s a huge amount of Midrashic literature written on what went on during the fight, and why the blasphemy was pronounced, but the Torah itself glosses over the fight entirely. All that matters here is that the name of God was blasphemed for what appears to be the first time, as no one knows what to do about it.

God’s answer to Moses is a strange ritual. The congregation is supposed to take the blasphemer out of the camp, everyone who was in earshot of the blasphemy are supposed to lay their hands on the blasphemer’s head, and then the entire congregation is supposed to stone the blasphemer to death.

This ritual of laying hands on the individual’s head appears over and over again throughout the Torah, but most of the time it is a priest, or many priests, putting their hands on the heads of sacrificial animals before they are offered to God.  I’m sure someone somewhere has written a dissertation on that topic, but it’s not particularly pertinent here. What is more pertinent is the fact that immediately after God delivers the command to stone the blasphemer to death comes a list of legislation, including the death penalty to individuals who kill others, the famous “eye for an eye” law, and a differentiation between killing people’s animals which demands restitution, and killing the actual person which, again, is deserving of death. It is then stated explicitly that all of these laws apply equally to native and non-native people residing with the Israelites.

So what we ultimately have here is a declaration that the blaspheming of God’s Name is an equal sin to the killing of another human. For those that don’t know, it is actually impossible to blaspheme God’s Name now, so don’t worry about your goddamns. The correct pronunciation of God’s Name was lost long ago, which is why I keep capitalizing Name – by Name I mean the ineffable Name that was used only by the chosen few High Priests of the Temple.

Returning to the point here, what does this say about human rights and values in the Israelite camp? As I said last week, God in the Tanach is ultimately the ordering principle of the universe, and we are seeing this in action on the micro level here. By attributing this legislation to God, and attributing ultimate value to the use of God’s Name, what we’re actually seeing here is the protection of the ordering principle of this new society. These people were, not long ago in the narrative, a nation of slaves under the foot of a ruthless pharaoh, oppressed again and again. Now, with their freedom, they’re much like that guy in Shawshank Redemption that wanted to go back to jail. A zealousness surrounding their ordering principle, the one that that is keeping them from fully losing their goddamn minds out there in the desert, makes perfect sense. Maybe Moses knew this, or maybe he did have some kind of direct channel to the ordering principle that let him “hear” the necessary order for the moment for each given situation. Regardless, these kinds of values, depending upon the society, are necessary glue holding the fabric of otherwise chaotic societies together.

And this was the crux of my inability to answer my friends’ question. The question was later contextualized within the confines of being stuck on a desert island with a bunch of people where you had to establish law, which, funnily, mirrors the situation of the Israelites in the desert in a very real way. Again, this was a people recently freed from 430 years of slavery, suddenly finding itself wandering in the desert behind some guy claiming to speak to the pillar of smoke and fire that led them all. It’s really not that different than Lost. In either of these instances, what is more valuable: Keeping the newly cobbled society together or preserving the individual human lives that make up the society?

It is far beyond members of the liberal West to claim that blasphemy is worthy of death, and I think that’s great for us. But should we be so quick to claim our sense of individual entitlements and the individual human life as the trump card of all value for everyone? Is the threat of an entire culture coming unglued a big enough issue to deserve death? I think this example from Emor serves to point out the deepest issue in our idea of human rights. How do we strike a balance between the survival and rights of the individual, and the survival of the disparate cultures? It is quite clear that they are interdependent on the deepest level. Without a people to carry them, societies and cultures simply cease to exist, and without a society and culture, individuals face the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life in total chaos. This question of balance, I think, is one of the deepest and most profound of our times. Unfortunately, many of the people that claim that Western liberalism and international human rights undermine their culture and society also claim to have a direct channel to the higher order, a god, or a Truth. I do hope that we can find some middle ground without having to have a guy talking to a giant smoke and fire monster show us the way.


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