Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

On Rights and Responsiblities

Here in the Great White North we have an appendage to our constitution called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Added on in 1981 when when the constitution was patriated from Great Britain, it was ostensibly designed to ensure that certain things, like those guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States constitution. Amongst others, things like freedom of thought, religion, conscience and belief are written into the Charter which would make one think that they are an essential part of it.
Naturally, in typical Canadian fashion none of these freedoms are absolute. The Charter leads off by noting that it "guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". What are reasonable limits? We are entitled to life, liberty and the security of person (let those Americans pursue happiness, we'll just sit around the TV feeling secure, eh?) but not security of property. Section 15 says we are all equal but that some, like Orwell warned, are more equal than others if necessary.
The net effect of the Charter has been to turn Canada into a society run by its Supreme Court. This was intentional, of course. Since the introduction of the Charter, any person who feels that he has been disadvantaged by another can turn and mount a "charter challenge" all the way to the top of the legal system. Amongst other things, concepts such as "sexual orientation" which are not mentioned in the Charter have been "read in". Don't like a law? Mount a charter challenge. Fired from work because you showed up late because you were out drinking the night before? Mount a charter challenge. And, having stacked the court with liberal justices, the prime minister who brought the Charter in, Pierre Trudeau, ensured that even if he was defeated in an election, his Liberal policies would continue to control the government since any conservative initiative could be shot down by the Supreme Court as in opposition to the Charter.
The result in Canada has been to create a society obessed with rights. Human rights, minority rights, equity rights, women's rights, some days it seems every identifiable group out there is screaming about its rights, usually for speical treatment, preferred opportunities or federal/provincial cash.
Back during my residency, one of my supervisors asked me what made Judaism different from Western society. Mulling this over, and considering what I have just written about the Charter, I responded simply: Western secular liberalism is about rights. Judaism is about responsibility.
Indeed, from my surveying of various blogs I think that the great divide between Torah observance and heterodoxy/atheism is the difference between responsibility and rights. The observant Jew generally looks at what his obligations are. Is this food kosher? Can I do this on Shabbos? Am I allowed to engage in a certain activity? The other side, however, shouts about rights. The right to disbelieve, the right to eat whatever one wants, the right to hang out with anyone one wants to.
Yet which is truly the better way? Naturally I'm biased in my answer but I would firmly posit that the path of responsibilty is the choice the intelligent and mature person should make. The path of rights, after all, is easy. Anyone who knows a demanding toddler can see that. After all, other than sophistication of language and complexity of excuses, what's the difference between a small child screaming about his right to be let out his room and an adult shouting that he has a right not to believe in God (chalilah)?
The responsible person puts God and others first. The rights person puts himself first. He hides that selfishness by stating the doctrine that everything is okay as long as you don't harm anyone else but fails to note two important points. The first is that this doctrine, as sensible as it sounds, remains a subjective doctrine in the absence of an objective, external authority, ie. God. Might make right, in a truly amoral atheist philosophy, is no worse or better than "Just leave me alone and I'll leave you alone". The second is that this pomposity generally takes place in affluent society where there is more than enough of the basic necessities of life to go around. It is easy to feign selflessness when one has enough for oneself. Far harder to do it when life throws one a curveball. Dick Dawkins might be a swell guy to hang out with because things are going well for him. If, chas v'shalom, bombs started falling, I'm reasonably sure that he, along with Chris Hitchens, would have no problem pushing little old ladies out of the way to make sure they got their seats in the nearest shelter.
Heterodox Judaism is little different. Whereas in Torah observance people accept that they have roles to play and defined responsibilities within the system, in Reform and Conservativism it's all about having what the other guy has. The woman who doesn't keep kosher or Shabbos will shout about her right to be counted to minyan, not that she intends to show up every morning, or even most mornings, to make sure a quorum is present.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: responsibility and selflessness vs. rights and selfishness. How can I help you vs. how can I help me. We live in a free society and furthermore, God has given us freedom of choice so either can be decided on. But I think, having accepted an objective external source of morality upon myself, there is a superior way and an inferior way. May God grant all of us the wisdom to choose the right one.


Bartley Kulp said...

That was awesome! Shana tova!

Garnel Ironheart said...

You too. Best in health and happiness for the year to come for you and yours.