Declaration of Independence

Does God Owe Us “Rights?”

“Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are, how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.”

-William Shakespeare
“Sonnet 57”

This is more of a question than a statement. Well, maybe it’s a statement and a question. I occasionally read commentaries on various blogs including several Hebrew Roots related blogs. One of the concepts that comes up repeatedly is the idea of “rights.” Specifically, whenever the topic of differentiation of identity between believing Jews and Gentiles within the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots arenas comes up, and someone (like me) suggests that the Torah mitzvot are applied differently to Jewish people than to Gentile people, one of the classic responses from Hebrew Roots is “We have a right to observe the Torah in the same way as a Jewish person observes the mitzvot!”

It’s an odd thing to say that one has a “right” to be obligated. It’s like saying we have a “right” to be obligated to obey the speed limit while driving, or a “right” to be obligated to pay our taxes. Obligations and rights tend not to go hand in hand, even when we consider that obligation just and correct and even desirable. After all, when my children were young (they are all adults now), I had a legal obligation to provide a certain level of care for them, even though as a father who loves his children, I did so and more out of love, not legal obligation.

But the big question here is “does God grant us rights?”

According to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But that’s the Declaration of Independence, which defines our rights as citizens of the United States of America, not the Bible which (among other things) defines our roles as human beings in relation to each other and in relation to God.

The Torah (in this case, I mean the Five Books of Moses) contains a large amount of law code that was to be applied to the ancient State of Israel, a state that existed as Earth’s only functioning Theocracy; the only nation ever to exist to be directly ruled by God as their King. Even after human Kings were anointed (first Saul, then David, and so on), the law code in the Torah was still valid.

the-divine-torahThe legal force and application of the various law codes and such have changed over the long centuries, in part because of the loss of the Temple, the Levitical priesthood, the Sanhedrin court system, the functional King, and the nation itself as Israel went into progressively longer exiles.

The modern State of Israel currently exists, but the vast majority of the Torah legal code is not applied to their laws, at least as originally intended in ancient days. They probably won’t be applied in that manner until the return of Messiah King, Son of David.

But be all that as it may, are any of the obligations to the citizenry of Israel considered “rights?” That is, does a Jewish person have a “right” to don tzitzit? Does a Jewish person have a “right” to daven with a minyan? Is it a “right” to recite the Modeh Ani upon awakening and the Bedtime Shema before retiring? Is it a “right” for a Jewish baby to have a bris on the eighth day of life?

I don’t see God so much as a “rights giver” but as a definer of identity and responsibility. According to the Master’s teaching:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (NASB)

These don’t sound like rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but obligations to love God with the entire scope of our resources and our being and to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves. Where are the “rights” in all that, since it is a summation of all of the Torah and the Prophets?

It seems like the focus of God and what He’s trying to tell us in the Bible is that it’s not all about us, believe it or not. It’s all about God and it’s all about what we do for other people. It’s not about what we can get out of the deal.

I know the Christian interpretation of the Gospel of Christ can be summed up as “a plan of personal salvation.” That is, we just have to believe and we, I, me, are, am personally saved from hell and damnation and promised a life of pleasure and peace when I die and go to Heaven.

While that’s terrifically good news, it also seems kind of self-centered and even narcissistic. It says absolutely nothing about how Jesus presented the two greatest commandments. It says nothing about loving God, being in awe of God, deeply respecting God, being thankful to God, and out of all of that, responding to human beings around us with love, respect, generosity, compassion, and, employing a rather Jewish way of looking at it, being thankful to the poor, the needy, the orphaned, for giving us the opportunity to serve God by serving them.

rabbi-prayingNone of that sounds like “rights” and all of that sounds like “obligation,” but even though we know that obligation is right and true and valid and what we really need to be doing all of the time, it’s always directed outward, from who we are to other people and to God. We are, in response to God, directing everything that we are, all of our resources, even our very lives, to the service of God and the human beings He loves (and He loves all human beings, even the ones we don’t love).

I’m really not convinced that observant Jews have a “right” to wear tzitzit or even a “right” to feed the hungry. Those are obligations assigned to them by God because they are Jews and they were set apart at Sinai based on a set of laws and responsibilities they agreed to uphold in perpetuity. Whether the Jewish person wants those obligations or not, they’ve got ’em. Only converts ask to be Jewish. People who are born Jewish didn’t ask to be born into a covenant relationship. It just happened by God’s will.

So whatever obligations you may feel you have to the service of God and people around you, I don’t think you, or I have a lot of room to be talking about “rights.” That doesn’t strike a very respectful tone in relating to God. After all, do you really think God owes you something?

Particularly as non-Jewish people who are grafted in and who aren’t even original parts of the tree, so to speak, do we have a right to define our obligations to God and a right to respond to those obligations as we see fit as individuals or as religious groups? What do you think?

Or talk to Job. He knows the answer.

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2 thoughts on “Does God Owe Us “Rights?””

  1. The idea of everyday people having “rights” is a relatively modern thing. Previously such things belonged only to rulers.

    It seems like many have taken a “recent” development in the secular world and try to apply it to religious life.

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