Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


In the Israeli Supreme Court case cited in our last column, after first discussing the need for pluralism in modern-day society, Justice Menachem Elon goes on to explain the importance of respect for human dignity:

A basic element of Judaism is the idea that man was created in the image of God (Bereshit 1:27). It is thus that the Torah commences, and from it the halakhah derives fundamental principles regarding the worth of every human being as such, his equality and the love of him…

The Jewish people are commanded to fight for their existence and to pursue those who seek to conspire against them and deprive them of their sovereignty and their land. But the enemy, too, possesses human worth and dignity…

These cardinal concepts have also determined relations with minority groups under Jewish rule…

Perhaps the most incisive expression of human dignity as such may be found in the explanation given by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (first century CE) for the different penalties imposed for the theft of an ox and of a sheep. Rabbi Yochanan rules as follows:

The Holy One blessed be He is mindful of the dignity of mankind. For stealing an ox, which walks on its own feet, the payment is fivefold; for stealing a sheep, which has to be carried on one’s shoulders, the payment is fourfold (Bava Kama 79b).

As Rashi explains, the penalty is less in the case of a stolen sheep because the thief usually carries it away on his shoulders, thereby demeaning himself!

The mention of human dignity in connection with criminal offenders may seem surprising, but it indicates the supreme importance of the concept. When one accords honor to a person who is entitled to it by reason of merit, that person’s singular qualities are being honored. But when one honors a person who has no such qualities, that person’s character as a human being is being respected. Moreover, here the criminal has violated his own dignity. Despite this, he is not excluded from the scope of the law; on the contrary, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is at pains to restore his dignity.

Rabbi Yochanan’s ruling also embraces the very origin of the concept of ‘human dignity’. It is worthy of note that the Hebrew phrase he uses is not kevod ha’adam (dignity of man), but kevod haberiot (the dignity of creatures). “Creatures” in this context includes all of humankind, all of whom were created by the Creator of the Universe “in His own image.”

Since the very source of human dignity is that human beings were created by God, the principle applies to all God’s creatures, not just Jews, but all of humanity. As Rambam enjoined: “Do not belittle human dignity, for it overrules a negative commandment enacted by the Rabbis…” (M.T. Sanhedrin 24:10). To shame a person is regarded as marking gross disrespect of the Divine image in man. And since the concern here is with human beings as created by God, all people are included, irrespective of religion or race. Even the criminal and the enemy [after he has been disarmed] are not excluded from the human family and are protected from degradation.

The Jewish concepts of kevod haberiot and the Divine image of humankind were adopted in a law recently enacted by the Knesset, prescribing equal rights for persons with disabilities. The Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law, 5758-1998, states that:

The rights of people with disabilities and the commitment of Israeli society to such rights, are based on the recognition of the principle of equality and the value of human beings created in the Divine Image

And the purpose of this Law is:

To protect the dignity and freedom of a person with a disability, to enshrine her/his right to equal and active participation in society in all the major spheres of life, and, furthermore, to provide an appropriate response to the special needs of a person with a disability, in such a way as to enable her/him to live with maximum independence, in privacy and in dignity, realizing her/his potential to the full.

The Law thus implements the Biblical commandment according to which the needy must be provided with “all their needs” (see Devarim 15:8) as well as the commandment “and your brother shall live with you” (see Vayikra 25:36).

Not only does the Law set out the entitlements of all those with physical, emotional or mental disabilities, it also sets out the commitment by Israeli society to protect these rights. The emphasis on society’s obligations, alongside the rights of those with disabilities, befits more the approach of Jewish sources, which emphasize man’s duties, rather than his rights and privileges.

The Torah states: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him” (Bereshit 1:27). The Rabbis commented on this: “Beloved is man that he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:14). This Law is the first time that Israeli Law has given expression to the fact that man was created “in the Divine Image.” This requires us to view ourselves and our fellow human beings as creatures created in the image of God. This is no small matter: honoring the Divine image of every human being is one of the most difficult challenges confronting us in our conduct toward ourselves and toward others.

While the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” passed by the Knesset in 1992 protects kevod ha’adam (human dignity), The Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law, goes further and uses the words kevod haberiot (the dignity of creatures), which is the term employed in Jewish sources. This expresses our relationship to others as people created by God, the Creator of all human beings, and thus elevates significantly the value of every individual.