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SIDIC Periodical XIII - 1980/3
Religious Liberty (Pages 25 - 27)

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Human Rights and Religious Liberty in Jewish'Christian Dialogue
Elio Toaff


Man, the highest, most perfect of God's creatures, was fashioned by him from earth taken from "the place of his forgiveness", that is from the very place where the altar of Jerusalem was to be built.

In the Image and Likeness of God

This affirmation proclaims the merciful love of the Creator and the great dignity of Adam, the father of humanity, whose body was formed from the same material as the altar of the Lord. Not only here but also in the Biblical stories in which God manifests himself, he does so always in the human form, thus investing it with a nobility beyond all question. Not only is man seen to be the most perfect of all creatures by his place in the order of Creation but he is proclaimed to be no less than the image and likeness of God. In Judaism man is not only created in God's image but is considered as a microcosm, as the summary of the Universe. What is more, this Rabbinical idea seems to me to have its roots in Scripture. It is deduced from the place occupied by man as the last-corner in Creation who is thus a synthesis of it. The sentence, "Let us make man" is addressed, according to Nachmanides, to all the forces of the Universe. In the language of Rabbinical theology it is an invitation to the Angels to take part in the creation of Adam because it is he who is the sum of these forces. These teachings lead us to conclude that their conception of man stems from the Bible. We should thus be confirmed in the idea that we are made by the Angels or Elohim who are partial personifications of the divine virtues and thoughts.

For Judaism, man, the image of God and the summary of the Universe has an incomparable nobility and grandeur, and if one considers that according to its traditions and sacred texts these prerogatives are not attributed to the Jews alone but to all men, be they pagans or barbarians, one may well wonder how areligion four thousand years old has been able to teach doctrines like these which are perfectly in harmony with the most modern conceptions of the human being. Judaism also confers upon man a title of great nobility by considering him the Temple of God upon earth because he is the sum of all parts of the creation and possesses in a special sense the organic conditions necessary in order to receive and to protect the spirit who gives him life, just as the human soul, bound to a certain organism, cannot without its help enter into a relationship with Nature.

The Value of the Human Person

The Talmud, too, is very clear on this point. "One single man is equal to the whole of Creation." Since man is created in the image and likeness of God an affront to humanity is ipso facto an affront to God. In another passage man is described as a microcosm: "Everything that the Holy One, blessed be He, has created in the world, he created in man." This thought is found in the Talmud elaborated in the smallest details in the attempt to find correspondences between the elements in Nature and in the human body. But the likeness to the Lord consists above all in the fact that man has been given a soul. His having a soul is the cause of his affinity with God and his superiority to the other creatures. The scholars of the Talmud recognize a double nature in man: "The soul of man comes from heaven and his body from the earth, but this shows that between soul and body there is the same relationship as between God and the universe."

The Jewish people took shape during the time of bondage in Egypt and this has great moral significance. Indeed it is impossible to imagine the effects of being deprived of freedom and oppressed if one has never felt them oneself. It can be said that the birth of the Jewish people took place while the Jews were an enslaved people, human beings who had been denied basic human rights. This is equivalent to saying that there had been, among the Egyptians, a debasement of the conception of man of man as understood by the Hebrews and thus the stronger could abrogate to himself the right to trample upon the dignity of the weaker.

Because the other man was weak and defenceless, the Egyptian no longer saw the image of God in him to be respected and venerated but only an inferior creature, a second-class human being.

The liberation from slavery and the Exodus permitted the Hebrews to receive the divine law from Sinai as free men, as men in control of their own fate and now well-versed in the effects which oppression and the deprivation of fundamental human rights produce in man and society.

And from the Mosaic period until the end of the Talmudic there was a most remarkable effort to harvest as much as possible from the commandments and moral injunctions of the Bible in order to enrich the ethics of Judaism and the morals of all humanity.

In Biblical law there is no legal definition of personal liberty because in the Bible there is no argumentation from principles, but only from individual cases, and liberty is only mentioned when it is in danger or is already lost. It is always tacitly, unquestionably understood that man is by his very nature free. Indeed, if it is true that all men are sons of the same Father, if all are created in the image of God, then it would be unjust and contradictory not to consider them as all equal, all with the same dignity and all possessing the same rights. Thus there are no second-class human beings in Judaism, no inferior men, and there are no superior or inferior races nor masters and servants by heredity or origin.

Man's Fundamental Freedom

According to the Talmud, some of the indispensable rights of man such as the right to life spring from this fundamental freedom.

This does not mean merely that the safety of life must be guaranteed but that its safety from all threats against it must be guaranteed. It means the guarantee for safety from all attempts on life even in the embryonic stage before it is manifest, the guarantee also, for all men, of the minimum needs for subsistence and of a juster distribution of wealth. The rights of the individual comprise the safeguarding of his honour and good name not only against slander and censure but also against any attack on self-repect, an attack which is compared to bloodshed. Thus falsehood is forbidden because of the consequences it can bring and hatred, because hating a neighbour is equivalent to hating the Creator. Finally, revenge and even the bearing of grudges are prohibited.

Apart from physical freedom there also exists the other liberty which is that of thought, conscience and religion, guaranteeing that a citizen may not be persecuted and hunted down for the ideas which he professes, for his personal opinion or for religious beliefs differing from those of the majority. In the long history of the Jewish people it is impossible to find any example of individuals or groups legitimately condemned for their ideas or opinions. On the contrary, we can find, I think, in the very time of the prophets, a rather illuminating example of the freedom of speech and opinion permitted by the Jewish state. During a period of the greatest danger to the nation, when it was involved in a fierce struggle for its freedom, Jeremiah did not hesitate to make threatening speeches and call down anathema on the King from the Temple court and to incite the combatants to desertion.

And what is one to say of the famous Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah of the Talmudic period, a friend of Rabbi Akiba and a disciple of the great Rabbi Meir, who was so strongly influenced by philosophical doctrines foreign to Judaism that he was considered a heretic? He never suffered either persecutions or discrimination. In spite of his sometimes provocative and scornful attitude to official Judaism he was never either banished or isolated but always enjoyed the greatest respect. This is a demonstration of great tolerance, of equally great freedom of thought and of an exceptional degree of broadmindedness. If this had not been so it would certainly not be possible to find so many quotations and maxims in the Talmud attributed to this Rabbi and they certainly constitute clear proof of impartiality and respect at the very least towards him for the part of his doctrine which can be harmonized with the doctrine of Judaism in general.

Let My People Go

As to religious liberty, I believe we can find precious evidence in the very Pentateuch for this. The Jewish people as slaves in Egypt were unable to progress beyond the religious intuitions of the Patriarchs. At the cost of immense sacrifice they were able to keep the monotheistic idea intact in spite of their contact with the civilization of Egypt and although they lived in a world whose Pantheon was so varied and so fascinating that they might easily, as were other subject peoples, have been drawn into its sphere of influence and so enguifed by it. The words spoken by Moses to Pharaoh are indicative and significant: "Let my people go in order to worship me." In slavery the first freedom to be stifled is religious freedom because religion is known to have a liberating function for the individual. Moses prepares to receive the law of God on Sinai and realizes that only free men will be able to observe it and that for this reason Pharaoh must give up his people and let them leave the country.

The encounter of Jewish and Hellenic civilization, which could have had a beneficial effect on both peoples, became a conflict when Antiochus Epiphanes, in order, as he believed, to strengthen Greek hegemony in Palestine, forbade Jewish worship and set up the statue of Zeus in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Jewish population, although fascinated by the civilization of its conquerers and although the Hellenized elements in it had considerably helped to adapt it to Greek domination, rebelled openly when deprived of the right to practise its religion. The Maccabees began the struggle for freedom and defeated the seemingly invincible SyroMacedonian armies. Perhaps this was the first time in history that a people united to fight for the restoration of religious freedom. And the Jews have handed down the memory of this struggle not as the memory of a successful military exploit but as a popular revolt in the cause of restoring one of the most important liberties liberty of worship, which is also an indispensable human right.

Apart from this it is well known that when one of the liberties mentioned above is suppressed, others will inevitably be taken away from the people concerned sooner or later. Freedom is a unity, an absolute and indivisible value, even if it appears with different names and connotations according to circumstance. It is an ideal existing in itself and for itself, one of the aspects and corollaries of the reign of universal justice preached by the Bible, in which individuals and nations have an inalienable right to be their own masters. Unfortunately we too must witness in all too many states of the modern world the denial of these principles and these fundamental rights of man. It seems almost as though the concept of man created by God had been forgotten and that the law of justice had been replaced by a sort of jungle law whose only rules are violence, domination and the abuse of power. Today it is widelyforgotten that it is our duty, since we know of our likeness to God, to cultivate it by imitating those attributes of the Lord that he himself has showers towards us so that the divine character should be visible in all our doings.

Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Religious Liberty

This is why a meeting like this one today is worth so much. It gives us the opportunity, in the present sad situation of the world, to rise up against all class differences and fight for the equality of all men, as created in the image of God. The great theologian Elia Benamozegh of Livorno has written, "Man was created in the image of God. He is the king of Creation. All things must obey him so that he can ennoble all things, spiritualize all things, and marking everything with his stamp, leave traces everywhere of the divine image which he bears within him. But let us admit it: these doctrines are like all the wonders of the world, like the earth and the sky, always surrounding us and always striking upon our senses until they become so familiar that we no longer notice them."

There would be nothing so bad in this if men behaved accordingly and put these doctrines into practise. But unfortunately the world has not changed much since ancient times and ancient injustices and discriminations are still there: men are still victims of political, religious and racial intolerance and thus the image of God is still being trampled upon and put to scorn.

The above address was delivered during the course of a round table discussion on "Human Rights and Religious Liberty in the Jewish-Christian Dialogue." The Christian speaker on that occasion was Mgr. Franco Biffi, Rector of the Lateran University, the chairman being Prof. Alberto Soggin of the Waldensian School of Theology. The round table, which took place on March 13, 1980, was sponsored jointly by SIDIC and the Centro Pro Unione, and took place in the lecture hall of the latter.


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