Legislating Moral Conduct

Human rights commissions in light of Torah values.

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Human Rights Commissions
I attended a seminar on Canadian Human Rights Commissions. On the whole, the event amounted to a wholesale "Let's Quash Human Rights Commissions" extravaganza. But I must concede that the tone of the event was rather peaceful. The presenters articulated their call for abolition in reasoned, albeit impassioned, tones; their arguments a blend of thoughtful ideas and emotional appeal.

The idea of abolishing a body committed to the protection of human rights seems absurd to most, but I must admit that I found the arguments compelling. On the way home, my wife and I compared what we had heard with our Torah-based values and education. To explain our musings, I must first share some of the more memorable remarks of the evening.

The panel consisted of three presenters. Mrs. Kathy Shaidle, the controversial blogger behind the blog Five Feet of Fury. Mr. Ezra Levant, who was notably hauled before the Human Rights Commission for publishing the now famous Danish cartoons offensive to Islamic sensibilities, and subsequently exonerated. Salim Mansur, a published and well respected professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.


Mrs. Shaidle argued that protection of human rights has become a platform for political correctness.

"You can have diversity or tolerance," she stated, "but you can't have both. Protection of human rights requires
The Torah does not protect rights as much as it mandates obligations.
that the liberty of some be curbed for the benefit of others, and under these conditions a clash of conflicting rights is as assured as it is inevitable. The choice of whose rights we protect is usually rooted in political correctness; a sentiment that serves the most vociferous or populous of ethnic minorities. At the moment, for example, the Canadian Gay community outnumbers the Canadian Muslim community, a reality that will eventually change for obvious reasons. Whose rights will the guardians of political correctness protect when that eventuality occurs?" she challenged.

She is right, I later reflected. Yet the Torah also mandates the protection of the innocent and that we provide for the poor. How does the Torah resolve this glaring problem?

Actually, I reflected, the Torah does not protect rights as much as it mandates obligations. It does not entitle the poor to my charity. Quite the reverse, it requires me to look after the poor. Obligations denote sacrifice, which requires me to part with money that is ostensibly mine by rights. Yet the Torah entitles neither me nor the recipient. The money belongs to charity and is allocated accordingly.

This entirely different paradigm completely avoids the confluence of rights problem and its resultant clash of entitlements. From the Torah's perspective, there are no rights to protect. There are merely obligations.

Ezra Levant
Mr. Levant talked about the ridiculous notion of legislating thoughts and feelings. Human Rights Commissions prosecute those who say or do things that might cause others to experience hatred.

"Free societies enact laws against physical violence and monetary damages, but not against ill will or incitement of ill will," argued Mr. Levant. Feelings are an integral part of the human experience and no legal authority can deem a feeling illegal. Destructive and inappropriate as anger and contempt might be, they can be neither mandated nor outlawed. If we could do that, quipped Mr. Levant, "we would long have passed the 'Love Thy Brother as Thyself Act'."

On our way home, my wife reflected that the Torah does just that. It legislates precisely the feeling that Mr. Levant cited, "Love thy neighbor as thee love thyself." It is not just a moral teaching; it is a commandment mandated by religious law as absolutely as the courts mandate secular law. How does the Torah get away with outlawing or mandating feelings? Why is it immune to Mr. Levant's charge?

The answer lies in a comment made by Mr. Mansur.

Salim Mansur
The most memorable quote of the evening belonged to Professor Salim Mansur. He first explained that Human Rights Commissions were established to protect the weak and innocent from abuse. He then proceeded to articulate the flaw in this reasoning.

"The founders of these commissions," he proclaimed, "neglected the teachings of Aristotle, Plato and Einstein that the human condition is inherently imperfect. All decisions made by the human are perforce also imperfect. The only solution to this imperfection is a democratic system of checks and balances. Mandating perfection is simply beyond the realm of human achievement."

My wife and I agreed that this argument touched on the core of the problem and explained why the commissions on human rights have so frequently abused their power, while the Torah has remained pristine for thousands of years.

In free societies, we are free to express our opinions even if they are offensive or injurious to another's feelings. Bigots and the fair-minded are accorded equal voice so long as their words do not injure or incite injury to another's person or property. It is true that such freedom allows bullies and bigots to prey on the weak, but in a free society such abuse is inevitable; it is the product of human imperfection. What is the solution?

The founders of Human Rights Commissions thought they could enforce a solution from the top down. They established standards of proper etiquette and proceeded to prosecute discriminators and abusers. On the face of it, this seemed a credible solution. The problem, as Mansur presented, is that they failed to take into account Lord Acton's warning that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The result was that those appointed to guard against discrimination abused their power and began to discriminate. Ironically, the combat against imperfection resulted in even greater imperfection.

Laws are as imperfect as those who legislate them and as grossly misapplied as those who enforce them. It is not practical to empower imperfect humans with the legal authority to enforce moral standards. That is a situation ripe
Combat against imperfection resulted in even greater imperfection.
for abuse and cannot work. The only workable solution is a democratic system of checks and balances. Imperfect as democracy is, it is the best we humans have.

On the other hand, a Torah society is not democratic and free; it is a theocracy. Its laws are absolutely binding on its adherents. Its authority to mandate and to legislate, to obligate and to require is truly above the law. Such power in the hands of human beings can only corrupt. The Torah has remained pristine because it derives its authority from the Creator; a supreme moral being.

Human beings can only achieve approximate perfection through freedom of expression and a system of checks and balances. The Torah, because it speaks for G-d, articulates the values that are absolutely correct. G-d, the perfect Creator of humankind, can discern constructive emotions from destructive ones. He knows which feelings derive from our imperfections and which feelings combat those imperfections. G-d, and only G-d, can legislate feelings.

Humans, who can barely govern their own feelings, cannot be entrusted with governing the feelings of others.






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