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Setting The Calendar For Human Rights

12/11/2018 08:42:12 AM


It’s not the darkest time. Not yet.

This year the lights of Hanukkah wane, along with the dimming sunlight, as we approach the winter solstice. Often the secular and religious calendars provide an overlap between the Jewish and Christian holidays that fall on the 25th - of Kislev and December respectively. These two festivals, just happen to involve the lighting of candles. It’s hard not to notice the confluence of dates, and imagine that ancient peoples were doing what they could to light up a bulwark against encroaching darkness.

Another overlap that arises at this time of year is a newer date, deeply worthy of commemoration. The Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948 on the part of the newly emerging United Nations, a specific response to the horrors of the Holocaust.

The UN Charter itself, adopted in 1945, contained general language reaffirming fundamental human rights and committing all member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."

The key drafter of the Declaration was René Cassin, a French Jew and noted jurist, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 for his efforts in developing the Declaration.

Jewish values are closely related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and dovetail in important ways:

  • Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel teaches in Pirkei Avot that the world is founded on truth, justice, and peace, core universal values.
  • The first chapter of the book of Genesis upholds the inherent value of each human being based on the idea that we are all created in God’s image, betselem elohim. Rabbinic Judaism applied the term kevod habriot to refer to the notion of inherent human dignity and equality.
  • Prophets such as Isaiah remind us that what God wants from us is to feed the hungry and free the oppressed. We have an obligation to create a just and compassionate society, a point emphasized throughout the book of Deuteronomy.
  • Specific values embodied in the Declaration – such as the right to a hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal – are echoed in Jewish tradition. Exodus 12:49, for example, mandates that there shall be “one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you,” while Deuteronomy 16 underscores the need for an impartial judiciary.

In a contemporary Hanukkah song by Peter Yarrow, we hear the lyric: “What’s the commitment to those who have died? We cry out – they’ve not died in vain. We have come this far always believing that justice will somehow prevail – this is the burden, this is the promise, this is where we will not fail … Don’t let the lights go out …”

What demands do we recognize as ours? In the spirit of Hanukkah, and of the International Day Human Rights, what burdens, what obligations might we take on?

Human Rights Day is not a fixed holiday on either the secular or Jewish calendars. Not yet. Perhaps it should be.

- Rabbi Liz

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Sh'vat 5780