It’s hard to translate the phrase kevod habriyot. I can visualise examples more easily than I can put the words into English: a child taking an old man’s hand and gently leading him to the dinner table; a nurse addressing a semi-comatose patient ‘Now Mrs. X, would it be OK for me to give you an injection to help with the pain?’
Kevod habriyot, literally ‘the honour of creatures’, refers to the respect due to the state of being human. It knows no differentiations of gender, faith or nationality. It expresses that dignity which inheres in each and every human life by virtue of being created in the image of God. Whatever that endowment is, – intelligence, creativity, conscience, vulnerability, sensitivity to others, – it bestows upon each and every human being certain rights which it is criminal to breech: the right to personal safety, to respect for close family relationships and to justly acquired property. To violate those rights is to show that one has no yirat Elohim, no fear of God, no respect for the most basic, most universal, laws of life.
Neither youth, nor age, nor illness, nor disability can diminish a person’s kavod, It is a crime wilfully to hurt a person because they are too young, too old, too ill or simply too different from ourselves.
However, a person’s kavod may be heightened by virtue of age or office. Thus, a special kavod adheres to the elderly, before whom we are commanded to stand in respect. A particular dignity belongs to the priesthood and to those who faithfully serve God.
The violation we witnessed this week in the murder of a venerable priest, Father Jacques Hamel, while he was reciting mass in a small church near Rouen, in a place of holiness and sanctuary, is an attack upon the very foundations of human life and society itself.
This desecration reminds us of the vulnerability and exposure of each and every person to violent evil. Our very fragility binds us in an indissoluble bond of fellowship with all who respect and care for life, whatever their faith or nationality; with all who exercise kindness and compassion; with everyone who, in the words of Micah, ‘practises justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with God’.
As Jews, we know only too well what it means to be forced to die for the sake of our faith and identity. So, too, do members of other religions. It has been estimated that currently three hundred Christians are murdered for their faith each month. In parts of the world less documented than Western Europe Muslims are killed regularly in Islamist outrages.
Judaism has always understood any attack or disaster as a call to teshuvah, to return and repentance. This must not be taken to mean that we should understand the tragedy itself as caused by our sins. In the present circumstances such an accusation would itself be a blasphemous violation.
Rather, the very fragility of human life in the face of violence and disaster teaches us to return to our most basic values, to fellowship, friendship, sharing, generosity, kindness, supporting the hurt, the homeless and the needy.
I’ve just finished reading Samuel Kassow’s harrowing account of the Warsaw Ghetto, ‘Who Will Write Our History?’. In it he records how, after receiving the German expulsion order, the Jews of the small town of Skempa in Poland ‘asked their rabbi to give them personal letters attesting to their past status in order to remind strangers that they, too, were once respected householders, not beggars’.
To label others as less than human is easy. The challenge is the opposite, to recognise and respect the humanity of every person. We must never be driven to forget that kevod habriyot, respect for the dignity of each and every human being, is the foundation of our humanity, and of humanity itself.