The following opinion piece is reprinted with permission from Shma magazine.
It is often said that American values and Jewish values are essentially the same–that America drew on the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition in defining the values it cherishes. Actually, the situation is much more complex. Americans speak of rights, Jews of responsibilities. This distinction is critical when we look for the places and ways we infuse one set of values with the other, and especially today as the values we say we believe in are translated into action.
As Americans, one of the strongest components of our identity is our commitment to individual rights–to personal freedom of choice as conferred in the Declaration of Independence and supported by the Constitution. The often-cited "right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the very founding of our country. It is an ideal that has driven peoples of the world to cross boundaries, violate borders, and flee all forms of persecution. It is integral to the development of international human rights embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted in 1948.
In Judaism there is no explicit concept of rights. There is a system of mitzvot, or duties and responsibilities, based on our love for God, where Jewish obedience to law and Jewish fulfillment of obligations are considered a form of divine worship. For example, while the duty to learn and teach is reiterated several times in sacred text (Deuteronomy 6:7, 20-25)–and is understood as an obligation, a tradition, and a cultural underpinning of our essential Jewishness–there is no right to education articulated anywhere.
Similarly, we can infer from the duty to assist the poor that there is a fundamental human right of every person to a livelihood, and we can extrapolate the fundamental right to life from the prohibition of homicide and from the supremacy of the directive that we must act to save a life and that "one who saves a single life, saves the world" (Talmud Sanhedrin 37:11). But we are told what we must do to live in the world and fulfill God’s expectations of us, not what rights we have.