This Shabbat we ask God’s blessing for the coming month of Nissan, the month in which we celebrate Pesach, ‘the season of our freedom’.
Freedom has never been the sole and ultimate goal in Judaism. In the many struggles for liberty which the Jewish People has had to face throughout our challenging history, sometimes alone and sometimes alongside others, the answer to the question ‘freedom for what?’ is always pre-supposed: freedom to serve God, freedom to do good, freedom to live and enable others to live according to the demands of justice, dignity and compassionate concern.
The European Convention on Human Rights was created in the wake of the Holocaust and the Second World War. The indescribably terrible experiences of the Jewish People, and of many others, formed the moral background to its formulation. Paradoxically, 15 September 1935 may have proved retrospectively to have been a key date in the Convention’s pre-history, the Nuremberg Rally at which the Nazis proclaimed that only those of German blood and origin could be citizens of the Reich. In this manner the protection of the law was removed from hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, who henceforth found themselves the defenceless victims of the tyranny of the state.
But the relationship between freedom and the Jewish experience goes back far further. It is in the wake of our slavery in Egypt that the essential laws of justice are enshrined in the Torah, frequently with specific reference to that bitter experience: ‘Don’t pervert the justice due to the orphan or the stranger; don’t take a widow’s clothing as pledge. Remember – you were a slave in Egypt…’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
It is argued that Judaism, like other religions, speaks of obligations rather than rights. It is true that it has little in common with those who petulantly pursue their ‘rights’ without showing any evident concern for their concomitant responsibilities.
But other people’s rights can also be formulated as our duties towards them and as the core moral concerns of our society.
Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) understood ‘love your neighbour’ to mean the responsibility to seek for our fellow citizens those very same rights and opportunities which we ourselves seek to enjoy in a free society. Commenting on the Torah’s injunction to ‘love the stranger’ he warned against making the rights of another person, whoever they might be, contingent on anything other than the fact that they too are created ‘in the image of God’. His words ring today with a prophetic tone.
It should therefore be with grave unease that we as Jews should contemplate the possibility that this country might repeal the Human Rights Act. Details and procedures are always subject to debate and potential improvement. But the Act protects the rights to life, liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom of speech, among others. Should Britain withdraw from the European Convention of Human rights, the signal this will give to far less democratic regimes, such as Putin’s Russia, can well be imagined.
Rather, we should struggle for the enhancement of human dignity, and responsibility, towards each other, all life, and God in all the lands in which we live, including both Israel itself and Britain. After all, the great narrative of our origin as a people concerns how, as a result of having been slaves ourselves, we become imbued with a unique responsibility and passion for the pursuit of justice and liberty, subject only to the service of God and God’s creation.