Project Heads: Prof. Yedidia Stern, Prof. Hanoch Dagan, Prof. Shahar Lifshitz
The State of Israel is defined as a "Jewish and democratic state." What is the meaning of this dual definition? Is there a contradiction between these two components of Israeli identity? And if so, how can they be reconciled? These questions lie at the heart of Israel's social, cultural, legal, religious, and political agenda.
This past year, IDI launched its Human Rights and Judaism project—a new research project designed to expose possible common ground between Israel's "Jewish" and "democratic" identities. The project's research team will work to uncover potential intersections between the Jewish tradition and the doctrine of human rights and explore the potential for an enriching dialogue between these intellectual worlds. We seek to build the intellectual foundations for a fruitful dialogue between these two streams of thought and practice. Our primary means for doing so will be to train an elite cadre of scholars who will devote their careers to this end.
The Jewish and democratic State of Israel is characterized by tension between the universalistic principles underlying its democratic character and the particularistic concerns inherent in its definition as a Jewish State. Many critics see an irresolvable contradiction between Israel's twin identities, and increasingly call for the adoption of one definition or the other. These critics believe that Israel must either abandon its pretense of democracy and erect an authoritarian state of the Jews, or abolish the Jewish character of the state and reinvent itself as a multi-ethnic, supra-national democracy – a post-modern "state of its citizens." Either alternative would carry serious consequences for the future of Israel and of the Jewish people.
IDI's Human Rights and Judaism Project is designed to produce the ideological mortar that will enable the intellectual leadership of this generation to foster a strong sense of solidarity with Israel as both a vibrant democracy and the national homeland of the Jewish people, before Israel loses either its Jewish or its democratic character.
The project will achieve this goal by pioneering the development of a new field of intellectual inquiry, which will focus on "Human Rights in the Jewish Tradition." The doctrine of human rights is commonly seen as standing in opposition to religious thought in general and to Jewish tradition in particular. Secular liberals often see Jewish tradition as a threat to democratic values and to the doctrine of human rights, while religious Jews often view discourse of human rights as an alien import that threatens Jewish values.
IDI's Human Rights in Judaism Project will bridge this gap by engaging in a rigorous re-reading of the Jewish tradition. The project will uncover the Jewish roots of the modern doctrine of the universal rights of man, and will reveal the common ground between the Jewish tradition and liberal thought. This will pave the way for reconciling the "Jewish" and "democratic" building blocks of the Israeli polity.
Under the guidance of Prof. Yedidia Stern, Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, and Prof. Hanoch Dagan, the project will assess what Judaism, in its broadest sense, has to say about fundamental liberal rights such as liberty, dignity, welfare, equality, and freedom of expression. At the same time, it will examine the unique set of rights and obligations offered by the Jewish worldview, and will explore their relevance to sovereign life in the Jewish nation-state. This two-way approach will expose areas of overlap and consensus between important parts of the liberal and Jewish lexicons, and will highlight areas of divergence between the two traditions in a way that will enable each to be informed and enriched by the other.
Areas of Focus
In recent months, the development team has consulted experts in various fields for an initial outline and mapping of the field’s intellectual horizons. Following these consultations, we suggest that the project include five complementary spheres of activity. The first two stages of the project will focus on the internal language of each of the intellectual worlds in question: Jewish thought and liberal thought, in the context of human rights and duties. The third stage will focus upon theories related to the encounter between these worlds; the fourth stage will explore specific rights and duties, and the fifth stage will expand the theoretical scope to include other areas of culture and society.
First, we will examine whether the doctrine of human rights is universal, or whether it is rooted in Western culture and inseparable from that culture’s unique set of values. We will also investigate whether there can be flexibility in the formulation, interpretation, and implementation of human rights in diverse cultural settings over the course of time.
Naturally, the question of the universality and flexibility of human rights is a general one that has concerned researchers of human rights over the last decades, and especially those studying multicultural societies or societies where religious norms play a central and defining role. Accordingly, our team-members will utilize existing literature on the subject and apply it to the unique dilemmas surrounding the encounter between human rights and Judaism.
Second, the project researchers, who will represent a variety of disciplines and research methods, will examine the internal Jewish debate on issues associated with human rights. The researchers will work with Jewish sources to detect overt or covert human rights concepts and explore their unique characteristics. They will also examine Judaism’s alternatives to the human rights doctrine, including a community-based perception of societal relations, social solidarity, and interpersonal commitment; a republican approach that emphasizes the individual's obligation to community or state; and a normative-halakhic approach to one's relationship with society. These are among Judaism’s most clearly recognizable alternatives to an emphasis on individual rights.
Third, after we examine each of the two worlds' capacity for inclusion and/or flexibility, we will work to develop a theory concerning the encounter between the liberal and Jewish worlds in the era of human rights. The theory might combine static and dynamic methods: the static method is based on an examination of the existing literature of each one of the worlds (as emerges from the previous two stages). As part of the static discussion, the various issues concerning human rights doctrine and the corresponding Jewish discourse will be mapped out and explored through case studies that compare and contrast cases in which there is a conceptual and practical affinity between the different discourses to cases in which there is a clear divergence. We will explore the possibility of the existence of an overlapping consensus, outline its limitations, and explore a broad variety of related questions.
Alongside the static method, the project will engage a more dynamic methodology as well. The researchers will ask themselves questions regarding the patterns of activity, development, and interpretation that Judaism and the liberal world can employ in order to incorporate one another. The discussion of the theory of dialogue will be based both on a general universal study and a particularistic Jewish one. The general part of the discussion will rely on historic and cultural studies into the encounters between different cultures and societies. These studies document and analyze different dynamics that occur during encounters between cultures—including withdrawal, revival of dormant components of one culture following exposure to the opposing discourse, or use of the opposing culture to enrich one's own. Special attention will be paid to studies of the encounters between liberalism and Western cultures on the one hand and non-liberal cultures on the other. The second element of the discussion has an internal Jewish component: the exploration of halakha and Judaism’s development following encounters with Christianity, Islam and modernity. Special attention will be paid to the dynamic and developing nature of halakha, universal layers that exist in Judaism (such as moral principles), the seven Noahide laws, and the ability of these principles to serve as a practical link to the liberal doctrine of human rights.
A substantial dialogue, or a valuable encounter, has the potential to influence both of its participants. Therefore, this project will test the potential of the liberal principles expressed in the human rights doctrine to influence Jewish thought. Conversely, it will explore potential Jewish influence on liberal thought.
Fourth, we will move from the general and theoretical to the specific and practical. In this section of the project we will address the ‘rights’ themselves. We will consider the possibility of cross-pollination between the accepted doctrines of human rights and those of Judaism in relation to a long list of concrete issues. Research papers will be written with a focus on specific rights—civil, social, and political—and on particular aspects of these rights. These studies will add new material to the Jewish bookshelf. Thus, step by step, a Jewish language of human rights will be developed.
During this phase of the project we will confront complex and challenging aspects of the encounter between human rights and Judaism, including, for example, the rights of non-Jews, women, and homosexuals.
Fifth and finally, we intend to expand the boundaries of the project in a number of ways. If we perceive "human rights" in their broadest sense, they contain not only a legal (or halachic) discussion, but rather elements of numerous other disciplines within the human sciences. Accordingly, the theoretical foundations established through this study are applicable to numerous areas of human existence and should not be reduced to the normative plane only. Similarly, the project's attitude towards "Judaism" embraces not only religious thought (including all participating streams) but also cultural, national, and social perspectives that exhibit Jewish characteristics. We are looking not only at the distant past and classical texts—though they are central to this discussion—but also at recent articulations and current streams of knowledge in order to consider the widest possible variety of Jewish expression. These broad horizons naturally raise questions as to the boundaries of the project. At this stage we cannot draw its precise boundaries for fear of stifling its tremendous potential; however, this task will undoubtedly occupy us as the project progresses. At this point, suffice it to say that we wish to navigate the encounter between human rights and Judaism using a broad approach that can accommodate the many manifestations of both the particular and universal duality in which we exist.
In order to meet the project's goals, IDI has assembled a team of dedicated researchers and has established a fellowship program for outstanding young researchers who are exploring matters pertinent to Human Rights and Judaism. Participants in the three-year program receive a generous stipend and participate in an exciting "Enrichment" track, comprising a curriculum that includes courses on Human Rights, a seminar on Jewish perspectives on individual liberties, and text-based workshops dealing with the convergence of universal and Jewish values. The young researchers present the findings of their research during a series of seminars. Three intakes of scholars are planned, with each program spanning three years.
The Human Rights and Judaism project holds regular conferences, as part of its effort to buttress the intellectual foundations of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Members of the research team present their findings at an annual conference, and a bi-annual international event brings together academic experts on human rights and scholars of Judaism from the world over.
In addition, an annual public and professional conference is coordinated by IDI Researcher Rabbi Shay Piron, a prominent educator, community rabbi and social activist. Each year's conference tackles a substantial and practical issue within the field of Human Rights and Judaism, and brings together scholars, representatives of human rights organizations, and activists in the field. The findings of each conference will result in a publication as well as turn-key educational and public programs. The project will also launch a public relations campaign in order to foster greater awareness of intellectual developments in this field.
In honor of International Day for Persons with Disabilities, Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau updates us on IDI's efforts on behalf of people with disabilities.Read his update or watch the short English video.Read More
In an article in The Jewish Week, Gitit Paz, a young scholar in IDI's Human Rights and Judaism project, discusses the status of mamzer in Jewish law and in contemporary Israel.Read More
Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, author of an IDI policy paper proposing a spousal registry as a framework for civil unions in Israel, welcomes the reintroduction of this issue to the public agenda but expresses some concern about the formulation of the current bill.Read More
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau expresses support for the proposed civil union bill, which would allow couples who do not want to marry in a religious service to form a legally recognized union and be eligible for the benefits and responsibilities associated with marriage.Read More
In an article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau calls on religious authorities who hold human rights dear to find a way to allow people with disabilities to have access to the Western Wall plaza.Read More
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau, head of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project, remembers Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as a courageous halakhic decisor who championed the needs of the oppressed.Read More
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau, head of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project, presents the transition from institutions to homes in the community for people with disabilities as a Jewish imperative.Read More
The first in a series of articles by researchers from IDI's Judaism and democracy projects and Human Rights and Judaism project on the complementary but tense relations between Judaism and democratic values.Read More
In response to the preliminary passage of an amendment that would exempt religious educational institutions from complying with accessibility requirement, a group of leading Israeli rabbis appealed to Israel's elected officials and requested their intervention to prevent the exemption from applying to religious schools. Rabbi Shay Piron, who directs IDI's work in this field under the auspices of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism project, coordinated this important effort.Read More
Why didn't the religious community in Israel participate in the socio-economic protest of the summer of 2011? IDI Senior Fellow Prof. Shahar Lifshitz reflects on this question and discusses the need to develop a pluralistic language that includes both particularistic Jewish values and universal democratic values.Read More
On January 5-6, 2011, IDI convened a Conference on People with Disabilities in the Jewish and Democratic State, as part of the activities of IDI's Judaism and Human Rights project. IDI Senior Fellow Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, the project's co-director, shares his thoughts on social justice and the just distribution of resources.Read More
The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation”
Author: Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes
A book by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes that explores the dialectical tension between the universal value of creation in the divine image and the particularistic value of the Jewish people as a holy nation—a tension within Judaism that is at heart of the apparent clash between Jewish and liberal values and at the core of contemporary discourse on Jewish and Israeli identity.Find out More
Human Rights Responsa, March 2013
Author: Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau
A contemporary rabbinic responsum by Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, head of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project.Find out More
This book deals with the interactions between Judaism— specifically, Jewish Law—and human rights, and explores the values common to both of them. It proposes a theoretical model for analyzing the relations between human rights discourse and Judaism. The extent of the implementation of this model and the weight of the values within it varies from time to time, place to place, and thinker to thinker. The common denominator, however, is quite broad and valuable, and opens a window onto a topic in need of exposure and to the firm establishment of dialogue between these two systems.Find out More
Author: Dr. Eliezer Hadad
This study identifies two approaches to the status of the ger toshav – the non-Jew living among Israel – found in classical halakhic literature. According to one view, the granting of rights to non-Jewish minorities is conditional, and depends on their partial assimilation into the Jewish people and forfeiting of their unique national identities. According to the other view, the ger toshav may keep his national identity, but his status is not given a formal basis in law.Find out More
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