A Jewish Theory of
Almost forty years ago, in his introduction to a collection of essays reflecting on rights-talk in the Jewish tradition, the Jewish political theorist Milton R. Konvitz noted, “There is no word or phrase for ‘human rights’ in the Hebrew Scriptures or in any other ancient Jewish text…. Yet the absence of these and related words and phrases does not mean the nonexistence of the ideals and values for which they stand or to which they point.”1 Konvitz seems to be suggesting that with some good historical research and some good philosophical reflection working with it, rights-talk could not only be found within the past Jewish tradition, but it could also be further developed in the present and preserved for the future by Jewish thinkers now engaged in rights-talk. And, in fact, the representation of Jewish rights-talk, bringing it up-to-date so to speak, could give it some influence in current discussions of human rights issues.
What we now need is a working definition of what is meant by the term “right.” We should begin by raising the question of whether a “human” right can only be exercised by a human individual, or whether a human collective can exercise a right too. Certainly when dealing with the Jewish tradition, we should then consider whether humans (individually or collectively) can be claimed by a nonhuman person exercising his right. That is, we need to inquire whether God can be considered a rights-holder — indeed, the rights-holder — and if so, we need to enquire how a divine right is exercised. Furthermore, when dealing with the Jewish tradition, we should consider whether what look like human rights in that tradition are “natural” rights in the sense of being rights that could be exercised by any human being in any rational human society, or whether there are also what might be called “Torah” rights. (Generally, Jewish thinkers who are uninterested in the universal question of human rights are also uninterested in the more particular question of how rights might be seen to underlie specifically Jewish duties.) Are there rights (and not just duties) that only members of the covenant between God and Israel can exercise because they alone are the people obligated by the full Torah (Scripture and the Normative Jewish Tradition), which is the constitution of the Covenant (ha-berit)? Accordingly, we can speak of three kinds of rights: (1) divine rights that God justifiably claims for himself; (2) natural rights that all