Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence
of the Social Order
ROBERT M. COVER
Every legal culture has its fundamental words. When we define our subject as human rights, we also locate ourselves in a normative universe at a particular place. The word “rights” is a highly evocative one for those of us who have grown up in the post-Enlightenment secular society of the West. Even those among us who have been graced with a deep and abiding religious background can hardly have escaped the evocations that the terminology of “rights” carries. Indeed, we try in this essay to take a little credit here and there for the luster that the edifice of rights reflects, perhaps suggesting now and again that the fine reflection owes something to some ultimate source of the light.
Judaism is, itself, a legal culture of great antiquity. It has hardly led a wholly autonomous existence these past three millennia. Yet, I suppose it can lay as much claim as any of the other great legal cultures to having an integrity in its basic categories. When I am asked to reflect upon Judaism and human rights, therefore, the first thought that comes to mind is that the categories are wrong. I do not mean, of course, that basic ideas of human dignity and worth are not powerfully expressed in the Jewish legal and literary traditions. Rather, I mean that because it is a legal tradition, Judaism has its own categories for expressing through law the worth and dignity of each human being. And the categories are not closely analogous to “human rights.” The principal word in Jewish law, which occupies a place equivalent in evocative force to the American legal system's “rights,” is the word mitzvah, which literally means “commandment” but has a general meaning closer to “incumbent obligation.”
Before I begin an analysis of the differing implications of these two rather different key words, I should like to put the words in context— the contexts of their respective myths. These words are connected to fundamental stories and receive their force from those stories as much