Basic Human Rights Obligations
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
The game show opened up with several excited contestants. At least, they thought they were contestants. Really, the entire game show was a carefully designed social science experiment aiming to test the extent to which the public lives up to its claims of virtue and tolerance.
The researchers had designed the experiment to offer contestants the opportunity to make fun of African-Americans. Thankfully, these opportunities came and went without a peep. Nobody dared discriminate against people with brown skin. At least in public.
But the researchers had designed the experiment in such a way that the Mexicans were next up to bat. Would anyone make fun of them? Oh, yeah. Without a qualm! All the way, Jose!
Chinese, no. Latinos, yes. Cancer patients, no. People suffering from obesity, yes.
“C’mon, they’re fat! Doesn’t that give us the right to make fun of them?! It’s a free country!”
Have you heard this kind of rhetoric before? Have you seen the look on a woman’s face when she feels that it is being applied to her? Have you ever been one of those women?
Discrimination isn’t dead. It has just changed focus. Bigotry is alive and well today. Want to look up further details of this “experiment”? Turn on any generic North American television station for a couple of hours. The experiment never happened. Rather, this is the true story of our lives.
Soap and Lampshades
Oh boy, do the Jews know all about it. We have been in the hot seat more than any other group on earth. Our day-to-day lives were not once what they are today.
For example, have you ever heard of Saturnalia? Originating in ancient Rome, Saturnalia was the original name of the holiday celebrated on December 25th. Deck the halls! Including such heart-warming practices as ritualized rape and human sacrifice, torturing the Jews was a central theme of the festivities. Worse still, Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen recounts:
Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.”
Lest you thought Saturnalia died with the Middle Ages, he adds:
As part of the Saturnalia carnival throughout the 18th and 19th centuries CE, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clownish outfits and march through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd, pelted by a variety of missiles. When the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition in1836 to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop the annual Saturnalia abuse of the Jewish community, he responded, “It is not opportune to make any innovation.” On December 25th, 1881, Christian leaders whipped the Polish masses into anti-Semitic frenzies that led to riots across the country. In Warsaw twelve Jews were brutally murdered, huge numbers maimed, and many Jewish women were raped. Two million rubles worth of property was destroyed.
We have all heard of the Jew-skin lampshades and shoes proudly marketed through the holocaust. They would climb the walls of the group “showers” shrieking in terror as the Zyklon B flooded their lungs and bloodstreams. Their remains were used to make soap. We have heard of the flaying and burning alive of Jewish men, women, and children throughout Spain and Portugal during the centuries of the inquisition.
But did you know that the Portuguese inquisition was only abolished by the "General Extraordinary and Constituent Courts of the Portuguese Nation" in 1821? Small wonder when in 2008 alone, the last year such statistics were available from the FBI, there were 1,013 reported hate crimes against individuals and groups of Jews in the United States of America. Many more go unreported.
Is this what we call free speech?
Whether against blacks, Jews, Mexicans, or those whose body type does not fit the current social ideal, discrimination kills. (In case you thought fat jokes were exempt from this rule, eating disorders kill women ages fifteen to twenty-four at a rate twelve times higher than all other causes of death for that demographic. Got any nieces?)
That’s why the Torah repeats the commandment against discrimination thirty-six times, more than the commandment to keep Shabbos, more than the commandment not to murder, more than the commandment to avoid any form of theft. The Torah voices its opposition to discrimination even more than it voices the commandment to love and serve G-d, the foundation of the entire mitzvah system.
Why so much repetition? Because oppressing those different from us is so easy and seems so inconsequential. What’s such a big deal about making fun of fat people? Or Mexicans? “They don’t even know English!”
You know what that means? It means, “I am part of the strong, dominant culture and they are part of a culture that is weak, helpless, and cannot harm me.” Does that give us the right to hurt them for fun? Is that how human beings have “fun”?
It’s a crazy world we’re living in. Torah is a voice of sanity. Splash these healing words on your fevered skin: “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Shmos-Exodus 23:9)
Or these: “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 10:19)
Or thirty-four other, similar commandments.
Torah was the first voice (or Voice, as the case may be) to advocate basic human rights. G-d began the movement. It took a G-d to say that every human being has inherent worth, regardless of what they look like, how they were brought up, or what accent they have.
We suffered and we are not allowed to forget.
It’s true, though: the problem with remembering suffering is that it could breed a Frankenstein. “I suffered, so help me. I suffered, so save me. I suffered, so I don’t care about you.” Haven’t we all seen the concept of “rights” perverted into a siren-call for an arrogant and self-perpetuating victim mentality?
That’s why the Torah comes at the issue from an angle almost directly opposite to the one we are familiar with. Instead of demanding human rights, the Torah demands human obligations.
Overcoming the Victim Mentality
Obligations assume a position of strength. You may have gone through hard times, says the Torah, but that doesn’t make you a weaker person. The suffering you went through can make you a stronger person, a more empathetic person, a more loving person. The gift of suffering can make you the most caring, giving, powerful member of your community - if you choose to open up the gift and look inside.
This is reflected in the twenty pages of free loan and aid services listed in my neighborhood phone directory alone. And I live in a very small neighborhood.
How many no-strings-attached kindness associations exist throughout the planet thanks to Jewish initiative? There is no way to count them. They are growing by the day. Is there an end to how far Torah-observant Jews are willing and wanting to go to help the poor, the sick, the indigent, and all the rest of the misfits, minorities, and outcasts of normal society?
Even though the Jewish People have probably suffered more than any other people on the planet, we have not become dysfunctional, low-brow and beaten-down. We received the gift of suffering and let it teach us to care.
Jewish caring and stances against discrimination haven’t been limited to Jewish society. Three out of four Jewish soldiers fought for the Union against the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. A 1959 U.S. poll asking Americans to rate their approval or disapproval of the Supreme Court order to desegregate public schools showed that the population most highly in favor of desegregation were Jews at 96%, higher even than the 90% of blacks in favor of desegregation themselves!
In 1967, 40% of Peace Corps volunteers were Jewish. Inspired by the huge numbers of Jews involved in foreign aid and development agencies, Laurence Simon founded the American Jewish World Service in 1985, today providing nonsectarian humanitarian assistance and emergency relief to thirty-six countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America. And the AJWS is one among many. The list of Jewish stances for caring and justice goes on and on.
Legacy of Kindness
This is our Jewish legacy of kindness. Jewish kindness and Jewish hard times are connected. Look at a hard time you went through in your life. Did that experience make you a more empathetic, caring person? Can you allow it to make you a more understanding, giving person today? Don’t let your personal Egypt pass you by. Egypt happens for a reason.
Of course, promises the Torah, it doesn’t have to be this way. Although Torah affirms that challenging life situations are purposeful, it does not glorify suffering. Were we to get the message and achieve the necessary personal growth without suffering, we would not have to go through it in the first place.
Do we really have to experience what it is like to be the underdog in order to become sensitive to minorities? Or will we listen to the Torah - thirty-four times - commanding us to be kind and caring for those weaker than we are?
This is our choice every day in the way that we speak, in the charity that we give, and in the people that we choose to become. But it is more than just a choice. It is our basic human obligation.