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DEUTERONOMY | 11:27 obey — DEUT552 Jews in the United States are the product...

DEUT552 Jews in the United States are the product of both the American and the Jewish culture, each with a radically different understanding of community. Am I, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, a creature born with inalienable rights within a community that exists only at the pleasure of those who give up some of its rights? Or am I, as Deuteronomy would have it, a person born into a host of obligations that are as “unalienable” as the Declaration's rights? The two are not mutually contradictory, but they certainly present two very different ways of thinking of oneself and of one's community. The clashes between Judaism and American democratic theory appear in several forms. The first, as I have been suggesting, concerns the assumptions that I as a human being and a citizen make about myself and others. If rights are the primary reality of my being, the burden of proof rests on anyone who wants to deprive me of those rights or restrict them. Because other people are born with the same rights, there are times when my rights are legitimately restricted, and there are even times when I have a positive duty to others. In each case, however, the duty arises out of a consideration of the other person’s rights. If, on the other hand, the prime fact of my being is that I have obligations, as it is in Judaism, then the burden of proof rests on me to demonstrate that I have a right against another person as a result of his or her duties to me. My rights exist only to the extent that others have obligations to me, not as an innate characteristic of my being. The source and purpose of my obligations also divide Judaism from American democracy. It is “We, the people” who create the constitution of the United States; the government must be “of the people” and “by the people,” according to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, not just “for the people.” The reason is the underlying assumption articulated in the passage from the Declaration of Independence quoted at the start of this section: “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Rules are instituted to secure rights; American individualism can be set aside only by American pragmatism, in this case the practical need to ensure that all can enjoy what is theirs by right. The source of authority of the law is the consent of the governed, who presumably see the practical need for imposing a law that restricts freedom. For Judaism, on the other hand, the author of the commandments is God, not the government. The Bible delineates several reasons to obey God’s laws: to avoid divine punishment and/or to receive divine rewards; to fulfill the promises of our ancestors to abide by the covenant, promises to which we, too, are subject; to have a special relationship with God, thereby becoming a holy people; and, as the opening passage of this section from Deuteronomy declares, to express our love for God. None of these aims, however, is to secure rights. Judaism and American democracy differ completely, then, in the initial assumptions of the legal system (rights versus obligations), the source of the law (people versus God), and the goals of the law (securing rights versus participating in the covenantal relationship with God). Moreover, the way in which a person views the world in the two systems of thought is different. In the one, I owe God; in the other, the world, or at least the government, owes me. In Judaism, I begin with the assumption that things can be expected of me; in the American system, I begin with the assumption that I have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which the government has been established to secure. In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; but those lines are memorable precisely because they are so surprising in an American context.


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