A few years ago, I was involved with an effort to stop the city of Chicago from demolishing Cabrini-Green, a public housing development in the heart of the city. The residents took the unprecedented step of bringing the city to federal court on charges of violating international law on displacement. While the residents ultimately lost this bid, they did earn a multiyear stay of the demolition. And by changing the conversation from one about justice to one about human rights, these residents placed their particular situation within the broader context of international human rights. This effort drew the attention of the United Nations, and of national and international bodies that might not otherwise have focused on a housing struggle in an American city.
The connection between human rights and social justice is important, and one that I’ve considered recently as I shifted from many years of working in Jewish social justice to the position of executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights. The phrase “social justice” brings to mind work on labor issues, poverty, and even the environment. The phrase “human rights” often brings to mind issues of torture and prisoners of war.
However, the U.N. General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually covers most of the areas of economic and social life traditionally categorized as “social justice issues.” According to this document, adopted by the U.N. in 1948, human rights include access to sufficient food, health care, and education; the right to organize for better working conditions; the right to be free; and the right to be a citizen of a country and a participant in its government.
The difference between human rights and social justice is not only a semantic one. The phrase “human rights” focuses on what each person deserves, simply by virtue of being human. The phrase “social justice” focuses on the responsibilities of society toward its members.
There is a long-standing debate about whether Judaism believes in rights or only obligations. For the most part, Jewish law speaks of chiyyuv — obligation. Jews have a responsibility to give a portion of earnings in tzedakah. According to Jewish law, employers must pay a living wage. Judges must treat each person fairly, regardless of his or her position in society. These are not acts of altruism; rather, these are obligations that each individual assumes in the interest of creating a more just society for everyone.
At first glance, the language of rights and the language of obligations seem to be at odds with one another. One asks, “What does each person deserve?” and the other asks, “What must each person give?” I choose instead to see rights and obligations as necessary complements to one another. Having a right does us little good if no individual, community, or government bears responsibility for ensuring our access to that right. On the flip side, there would be little incentive to take on obligations toward another person if we did not fundamentally believe in that person’s right to a certain standard of living.
These two concepts — rights and obligations — come together in the biblical statement that human beings are created in the image of God. As creations in the divine image, human beings have basic rights to a dignified and safe life. The rabbis of the Talmud describe any injury to a human being as an injury to God, and any degradation of a human being as a desecration of the divine image. Accordingly, the laws of tzedakah insist that every person deserves sufficient food, clothing, and shelter; criminal justice laws maintain the humanity of the accused; and hundreds of laws protect the vulnerable from the whims of those with more social, political, or economic power.
But being a creation in the divine image also imposes obligations. Like God, human beings can make change in the world, and can accept sacred obligations toward other people. Thus, humans have not only rights, but also obligations to ensure that all other people also enjoy those rights.
In our efforts to create a more just world, we need both the discourse of human rights and the discourse of social justice. Human rights law reminds us that each of us, as a creation in the divine image, deserves a fair standard of living. The language of social justice insists that each of us also has an obligation to help create the world in which we want to live.
Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (shma.com), Vol. 42, No. 684, p. 15.