“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Thus reads the first of 30 articles that make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UDHR) which was adopted without a single dissenting vote by the UN General Assembly in 1948, in direct response to the atrocities of World War II. Last Friday, December 10, now known as Human Rights Day, marked the 62nd anniversary of the groundbreaking agreement that was written in part by Eleanor Roosevelt. It is the most widely translated document in the world.
To celebrate this momentous achievement, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center hosted a special Shabbat service on Friday that included a discussion of the UDHR with a panel of local religious leaders. Rabbi Caryn Broitman was joined by Reverend Cathlin Baker of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury and Reverend Robert Hensley of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. The panelists spoke about how human rights issues are addressed in their faith traditions. The public was invited to attend the special Shabbat service. Lori Shaller, who organized the event with Zee Gamson, notes that the local congregation has recognized Human Rights Day for the past three years, ever since a national organization, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, launched an initiative to promote observances among congregations nationwide. However, this was the first time that outside speakers were included.
“What we wanted to do was to universalize the notion of human rights, so instead of looking at a single human right, as we have in the past, we decided that because it’s a human rights document we should invite people from other faiths to celebrate with us,” Ms. Shaller said. “We wanted to focus on the document which speaks to all people in all faith traditions.”
Rabbi Broitman began the panel discussion on the UDHR. “For me it’s a very religious document, in that it represents the very essence of Judaism,” she said, reminding her of a fundamental tenet of her faith, that “each of us is created in the image of God.”
Rabbi Broitman noted that Judaism recognizes universalism. “Human dignity is the first Jewish principle based on a common world standard,” she said, before referencing the Jewish doctrine that humankind sprang from one individual. “We know that we’re all related. There is a sense of peace because we all came from a single person. We’re all one species.”
The Rabbi also addressed the difficulties inherent in trying to establish a universal definition of human rights. She cited the example of enforced marriages that are the cultural standard in certain countries. Understandably, the UDHR has, throughout its history, been met with objections among leaders of some nations and certain special interest groups.
Reverend Hensley spoke first of the Christian principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He then noted the timeless quality of the UDHR’s principles. “What I have been really impressed with is that they are as relevant today as they were 62 years ago, or 2,000 years ago.”
Addressing the importance of personal responsibility in the human rights equation, Mr. Hensley wrapped up his talk by saying, “I have to look in the mirror every day and confront the oppressor I see there before I go out and confront it in others.”
Reverend Baker spoke at length about using the UDHR in her activist work in New York City during her seminary training. She found the document to be a great tool for helping engender solidarity between different, fractional organizations. “It moved us away from incremental policy and more towards a vision,” she said.
Ms. Baker concluded by quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
To which she added a personal sentiment: “The future is ours.”