Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Doing research on Charles Darwin and his historical context has made me realize that there are many humanitarians who have been neglected by academia and, further, that, as far as I know, there are no university courses on the history of humanitarianism. That’s a shame.
This got me to wondering what a course on humanitarianism would look like. There would probably have to be multiple courses, broken into time periods or countries or cultures. There is a lot to cover. No one class could do it all. And, of course, attention would have to be paid to why this has never been done before. Why are humanitarians (known as philanthropists in the 19th century) so troubling to us that their existence has to be erased?
Naturally, I also found myself wondering what should be presented as the Jewish contribution to this history. There is so much to choose from in ancient Jewish culture. It would be hard to limit oneself. If there was a class covering a wide range of examples from many cultures and only one or two examples could be given from each, I think I would choose to focus on the Mishnah trial rules and that statement in Josephus that our law requires that no man may be condemned to death without a trial by the Sanhedrin (in other words, everyone gets due process).
My favorite rule and another part of this Jewish due process was the requirement that death penalty verdicts could not be unanimous. That means at least one judge had to argue for the defendant, thus giving him, in effect, the right to an attorney.
But a particular reason why I picked the trial rules as an example of humanitarianism is because at one point, in the midst of discussing the importance of carefully questioning witnesses in murder cases (after all, a man is on trial for his life, and if he is found guilty, not only will he atone with his life, but all future generations that would have come from him are also forfeiting their lives), the rabbis break off and discuss why God began human creation with a single individual. Several reasons are given. One is that it was to remind us that if you destroy one person, you destroy a whole world. Another is so that each person will say to himself that on my account was the world created. Also, no one would be able to say that my father is greater than your father, since we all come from the same ancestor, and this would hopefully help to promote peace between people.
The last reason reminds me that the British Aborigines’ Protection Society, founded in 1836, formulated a motto which expresses the same thought: Ab Uno Sanguine (Of One Blood). It was a thought that found a hard time finding a place in the world.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

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