Celebrating International Human Rights Day

12/10/2011 08:11 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UDHR), which was proclaimed 63 years ago this Saturday, Dec. 10, 1948. She used to offer a nightly prayer that ended by asking God to "Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of the world made new." This dual understanding of human nature -- both the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on each other and the heights that we can achieve if only we know the way -- is at the heart of the document she helped create. The Preamble and 30 Articles of the UDHR cover just about possible permutations of social, political, cultural, economic and civil rights that might need to protected, because at some point, every single one of them has been denied.

I'll admit that prior to coming to work for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America nearly five years ago, I had never read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most of us probably haven't. If I thought about human rights at all, I probably thought about political prisoners in oppressive regimes or war crimes. I didn't think, or more probably I didn't want to know, slave-made goods in our supply chains or trafficked domestic workers in my home community. I didn't think about police brutality or solitary confinement as forms of torture. And I had never considered that social and economic rights were as much human rights as civil and political rights. It is as much a human right to be able to join a union as it is to be able to vote!

The UDHR is both inspiring and challenging. Inspiring because of the ideal world it describes, insisting even that "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized." (Article 28) A world where everyone has the right to work, live free from fear, and be assured the same rights as their neighbor? Who wouldn't want to live in that world? And challenging because the reality is the world the UDHR describes feels very remote. We know what our rights are but now we have to work to make them reality.

The Jewish community in particular cannot forget that the UDHR was written as a reaction to the Holocaust and other atrocities inflicted on civilians during WWII. RHR-NA's founding chairman, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, has encouraged International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10th) to be seen as a yom tov (a holy day) for Jews everywhere. This yom tov is a both a day of celebration of a groundbreaking document and a call to action. We understand in our guts what can happen when the failure of one person to see another as fully human is magnified to a grand scale, and so we must pledge ourselves to promoting universal human rights as fundamental to all human interactions.

This pledge is true for us both as nations and as individuals. As nations, it is too easy to point fingers at where other countries are failing on human rights. Make no mistake, there are countries that have horrific human rights records. But for those of us who live in democracies, we have to admit that we aren't always living up to the rights we profess to maintain. Housing is a human right -- how many Americans are homeless? Food is a human right, and yet how many people will spend this holiday season not knowing where their next meal is coming from?

But human rights should also govern our individual actions. Jewish tradition teaches us that inherent human dignity, k'vod habriot, is so fundamental as to override even biblical commandments. What would it mean to approach each interaction with other person with their inherent dignity in the forefront of your mind? Acting towards each other "in a spirit of brotherhood" (in the words of the non-gender neutral UDHR), would we still hang on to deep-seeded prejudice? Would we discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation or physical ability? As individuals, we must commit ourselves to the grassroots changes in human society that no government can legislate. And those changes are very difficult.

Human rights are aspirational. They challenge us to be our best selves, both as nations and as individuals. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, we know there is a possibility of a world made new. This year, as we celebrate our modern yom tov, let us make her vision a reality.