Join the Conversation on Human Rights and Dignity
Seventy years ago this week the United Nations, newly established after WWII, passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of the Declaration states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Some of the rights that the declaration spells out are the rights to security, marriage, education, movement, and employment. Firmly rooted in liberal values, a statement like this also has roots in the Torah. As it says in Bereishit-Genesis: “God created the human beings in the divine image” (Gen. 1:27), and in Vayikra-Leviticus: “Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal” (Lev. 19:18). While the Torah focuses more on the individual’s obligations rather than the modern notion of rights, I think the idea of liberty has evolved from the radical statement in the Torah that we are all descended from the same humanity which has dignity and worth because humans are a reflection of God. Because of this, we are obligated to act to each other with love and compassion.
Twenty years after this landmark UN document was ratified, Holy Blossom Temple celebrated the promise of a world of peace and human dignity that it stood for with a stained glass window with the symbol of the United Nations dedicated in memory of Dewey David Bloom by his family in 1968. The circular window is in the balcony over the Herman Chapel in the sanctuary.
This column is not to argue about if the United Nations is taking its own mandate seriously today, although maybe that should be argued in another column, what I want to write about is the contemporary assault on the idea of human rights around the world. In our world, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are being ignored. Immigrants are being scapegoated. Journalists are being disappeared and killed and leaders are not speaking up because of misguided political alliances. Freedom of speech is being curbed. And, of course, we know that antisemitism is on the rise. When societies target the weak, they often then turn to target Jews.
We are privileged and grateful to live in Canada which might be the world leader in the respect for human rights, I think that we are not immune to the hard-lined nationalism and populism that I see as the leading cause of the assault on human rights and dignity of the individual today. So, what are we to do about it? A first step is to openly discuss this as Jews. Because Holy Blossom Temple is historically a centre in Toronto for the discussion of these issues, we have decided to focus on this conversation. The first two of a series of conversations on human rights is beginning this Shabbat with Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism. From Torah study to the sermon to a talk after services, Rabbi Kariv will be talking about “The Role of Reform Jewish Values in Defending Human Rights and Religious Freedom in the Jewish State.” On January 14, Holy Blossom will be hosting the writer David Frum who will be speaking about “Human Rights in the Age of Nationalism and Populism.”
I hope that we can all join in these conversations and others that will follow. “Human rights” or “created in the image of God” are just sayings unless we act in the world to ensure that people can live with liberty and dignity.