Freedom, Rights, and Responsibilities - Lesson Plan for High School
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “The American Jewess on Liberation and Freedom.”
The featured document in this guide—and editorial from the April 1897 issue of The American Jewess—compares the significance of Passover and the Fourth of July for American Jews. Most American Jews today have no problem celebrating both of these holidays—each in very different ways—and many of us do feel profoundly grateful for our freedom as Jews and as Americans. However, the comparison of these two holidays can elicit an important discussion on the underpinning assumptions about the nature of and requirements for freedom within Jewish and American law. In this session, we will look at the primary sources that emerged from the Exodus (the Ten Commandments) and the War of Independence (the Declaration of Independence) and examine how each attempts to construct a free society—and a definition of freedom.
The American Jewess
Begin by reading the editorial from The American Jewess, providing some of the background to the text from the overview essay as well. Discuss what the author meant:
- What are the similarities between the Fourth of July and Passover?
- Why do you think some American Jews would have advocated the celebration of American Independence Day and not Passover?
- How do you understand the metaphor of the silkworm?
- What is the Editor’s argument in favor of American Jews continuing to celebrate Passover?
- What does it mean for liberty to “become a blessing and not a curse”? What does the Editor suggest we must do for this to happen?
Rights vs. Responsibilities
Hand out the texts of the Ten Commandments and the excerpt from the Declaration of Independence. (Depending on your group size, either stay in one group or break into small groups, 3 or 4 students per group.) Ask students to discuss the following questions, one at a time (don’t give them the second question until they have completed the first, and so on):
- Read both of the texts. What word is used in every sentence of the Declaration of Independence text? Is this word found in the Ten Commandments?
- If the Declaration of Independence is laying out rights for its people, what is the Ten Commandments laying out?
- Which of these frameworks—“rights” or “responsibilities”—do you think is more fundamental to a free society? For example, compare the Sixth Commandment “You shall not murder” to the first line of the Declaration: “all men are…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life…”
Explain to your class: Although American law is based on certain Biblical ideas, the expression of these ideas is profoundly different. So, while both assume that our lives are a gift bestowed on us by God, American laws assert that we all have a right to live, while Jewish texts teach us that we all are obligated to protect the lives of ourselves and others.
Ruth Messinger, President and Executive Director of the American Jewish World Service, wrote an excellent article on this topic. Read and discuss excerpt below. What role does Messinger believe Jews should be playing?
Why is it important to make this distinction [between rights and responsibilities as the basis of these texts]? Because, as these values are expressed in America and by Americans, they are rights and liberties to be enjoyed. But this will only be the case if individuals assume responsibility for protecting these rights and enforcing the law against those who trample them.
And we live in a time when too many speak of these rights and seek to enjoy them as entitlements, but do not sufficiently recognize the responsibility to create and protect them. This is where Jews have a particular role to play.
The conclusion of Messinger’s article makes a powerful case for the connection between remembering the Exodus from Egypt and taking a role in American society to work for the greater freedom and justice of others. Read and discuss her conclusion.
Observing mitzvoth—that is, acting on our obligations and responsibilities—means remembering the Exodus from Egypt, respecting the “other,” and treating the stranger as we expect to be treated, with dignity and rights. It means expanding the fields of justice and peace by actively engaging with the poor and the most vulnerable in our American society and in the world. It means interpreting Jewish tradition in the framework of an interconnected world where famine, war, disease, and poverty anywhere on the globe affect us all. It means acting out of our Jewish value framework to set an example for others, acting on our responsibilities, and so enhancing the possibility that others will enjoy their rights.
And it means urging America and Americans to assume responsibility to work for these rights for more people, rather than assume that they will simply happen eventually.
Jews exercising responsibility to help heal the world understand that the maxim, "It is not your responsibility to finish the work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to desist from it" (Pirket Avot 2:16), can make a difference in the world for those many people who are also made in God's image and who deserve greater justice.