Dignity of the Human Person

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.” - Genesis 1:27. These words heralded a new age of human understanding, an age of personal value, civil liberty and individual worth. They set forth the ground-breaking value of human dignity.
The concept of human dignity is one all those living in the Western world understand, it is to us entirely self-evident. Upheld and implicit in our judicial systems, governments and civil rights, it is the foundation of our free societies, personal liberties and cultural legacy. It underpins the very precedent upon which Western thought has been based for the last millennia; the fundamental value of all individuals.

However, if it was a currency, the concept has not been in circulation long. In fact, when it was first introduced it was utterly unprecedented, permanently transforming the civil foundations of the ancient tribal landscape of the Near East for good. The cataclysmic revelation to the Jewish populace at Sinai established the importance of human dignity in the Ten Commandments. This had a trickle-down effect through the ages, first through the Tanach, then the New Testament, which was introduced into European thought through the wider evangelising spread of Christianity, continued into the Enlightenment, and eventually gained permanence in the Western world of today.

Here are the 5th-9th Commandments, tenets of our faith. Note how they all enthrone and protect the profound centrality of human dignity as a salient point of Judaism itself.

Honour your father and mother - establishes the importance of acquired wisdom and the dignity of respect within a family.

You shall not murder - establishes the value of any human life.

You shall not commit adultery - enshrines the dignity of personal commitment.

You shall not steal - enshrines the dignity of rightful ownership.

You shall not bear false witness - establishes the dignity of unsullied human truth.

The appointment of “magistrates and officials… in all the settlements… (to) govern the people with due justice” is commanded in the Torah, as equality in the eyes of the law belies the fundamental dignity of all individuals.

Going even further back to a verdant garden at the beginning of time, Man was ‘made in the image of God’. We are told, from the outset, that we were made in resemblance of God. In demonstrating the dignity of Adam, the very first human with neshamah, it follows that if we were all made in reflection and expression of the image of God Himself, then we must all have the same spark of divinity within us.

In the 17th century, with the Enlightenment on the brink of sweeping through Europe, philosopher John Locke pronounced “slavery… so vile and miserable” that it should be banned. As Western thought awoke to the notion that all are equal in the image of God, it left no room for legal ownership of another divinely created human. The idea of the dignity of the individual opened up a new moral universe - that of universal equality in the eyes of God. It also opened up the possibility of equality in the eyes of the law. An individual, regardless of race or religion, was equally as valuable as any other. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently stated; “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine?”

The Torah set a precedent for the rest of human history, its value of human dignity allows for a pure, transcendent concept of individual worth that was unlike anything that came before it, and indelibly shaped the cultural history that came after it. This is the bright, powerful, world-altering gift the Torah has granted the world; that all are worthy of basic dignity.

Source: Human Rights - written by young jews from 40 countries with support of B'nai B'rith International Portugal and International Observatory of Human Rights