Back to the Sources!
Learning a Concept: The Idea of Jewish Responsibility

The idea that Jews are in some way responsible for each other, that the bond between them implies a deep sense of caring that - in times of need - must translate into acts, is behind everything that we have examined in this section. We have seen some of the roots of this concept in the Biblical commandments about treatment of the poor and unfortunates; but the fact is that this concept is far more extensive and profound. It is to this concept of mutual Jewish responsibility that we now turn, in an attempt to deepen the students’ theoretical understanding of the practical exercises in which the group has just participated.

The idea of mutual Jewish responsibility seems, at first glance, a fairly banal and obvious concept; in fact, the truth is very different. This concept goes right to the heart - and perhaps to the soul - of the Jewish experience. It has played an immeasurable part in the struggle for Jewish survival over the generations. It is, moreover, an idea that has been analyzed and commented upon hundreds of times over the centuries, as a result of which it has penetrated to the core of the Jewish educational experience and the Jewish psyche. It seems that we will search in vain among other nations for a comparable concept that has struck such responsive depths throughout all social strata of the people.

The basic expression of the idea of mutual Jewish responsibility is contained in the phrase ) sometimes written ). Our first source for this phrase is a rabbinical commentary on a verse in the book of Vayikra, in the section of blessings and curses concerning the effects of Jewish behavior in Eretz Israel. In a familiar passage of curses, we are told that - among other things - the Land of Israel shall be laid waste and its cities destroyed; the people shall be scattered among the nations and many shall die by the sword. As for the others, they will suffer from the feeling that their enemies are pursuing them even when it is not the case.

And upon those who are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies and the sound of a shaken leaf shall pursue them and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword and they shall flee where none pursues. And they shall fall one upon another, as if before a sword, when there is no one pursuing them.
Vayikra 26: 36-37

The rabbis understood the phrase "they shall fall one upon another" to mean "they shall fall one because of the sins of another" and explained the reason for this as . In other words, they said that the reason for this calamity of curses on the Israelites was because the entire people was held responsible for the sins of some of its members. They postulated a system of mutual responsibility by which Israelites or Jews would be inextricably bound up with each other: the actions of one would affect the fate of another. The people as a collectivity would rise or fall together on the basis of the actions of its constituent members.

Late rabbinical authorities limited this responsibility: those who are judged guilty and punished for the sins of others are those who knew about a sin or crime, and did nothing to prevent it. The defense that "I didn't know, I didn't hear, I didn't see" is unacceptable. We are all responsible for each other’s behavior. When we see a sin or a crime being committed by other Jews, it is our duty to act or to be judged guilty too.

This principle became more widely applied with the idea that, in addition to the individual responsibility that each of us has for our own acts and behavior, we also hold responsibility for the fate of the nation. Those who turn away from this are seen as sinners.

A number of Biblical narratives illustrate this concept of a Jew’s taking accepting responsibility. A key example is that of Judah, son of Jacob, who first leads the initiative to sell Joseph into slavery. Later, Joseph tests his brothers’ behavior by hiding and then finding his special cup in Benjamin's bag, and demanding that his youngest brother remain with him as his slave. Judah offers twice to take Benjamin’s place because he has guaranteed his safe return to their father (Beraishit ch. 43-44). In so doing, he becomes a paradigm, for later generations of rabbis, of personal responsibility and selflessness. Some rabbis even went so far as to suggest that the people came to be called Yehudim because of his actions in this instance, which show how important they considered such behavior on behalf of another Jew.

Throughout the rabbinic sources, we repeatedly hear echoes of the perceived need for Jewish solidarity. In Pirkei Avot, the central ethical section of the Mishnah, for example, we hear:

Do not separate yourself from the community.
Pirkei Avot 2: 4.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are told:

When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, "I will go into my house and eat and drink and be at peace with myself."
B. Talmud, Massechet Ta'anit 11a.

In the midrashic work, Vayikra Raba, we hear the following well-known parable:

Some people were sitting in a ship when one of them took a drill and began to bore a hole under his seat. The other passengers protested "What are you doing?"

He said to them, "What has it got to do with you? Am I not boring the hole under my own seat?"

They answered him, "But the water will come in and drown us all".

Such is the fate of the Jews: one sins and all suffer.
Vayikra Raba 4: 6.

The rabbinic world-view that developed as the basis for Jewish culture and life through the centuries is permeated with this same concept: an individual's responsibility for the community. The language of Jewish prayer is a prime example. It is not just that the fate and fortune of the community is absolutely central in the things for which we pray; the very language in which the individual traditionally addresses God is plural. We reach the height of this experience on Yom Kippur when the individual recites the litany of sins that he/she has committed in the plural, 'confessing' to many crimes that may never have crossed his/her own mind.

The roots of this concept should now be clear. It is also important, however, to stress the reasons for its development, and the emphasis which traditional rabbinic culture placed on it after the destruction of the second Temple. It was clear to the rabbis, who formulated the norms of the Jewish collective in this period, that it was necessary to impress on the Jewish people the fact that the nation would rise or fall together. The Jewish people was undergoing a period of national crisis; if everyone did not understand their responsibility to the collective, they would not continue to flourish. The Jews had to be welded - as much as possible - into a single unit; they had to assist each other whenever possible. The Jews were cast out into a hostile world without the safety of a sovereign state to help and protect them. Throughout the different countries of the Diaspora, potential dangers surrounded them. Without the feeling of collective responsibility for the individual and individual responsibility for the collective, the future would be very bleak.

In addition, it must be remembered that the rabbis understood the Second Temple to have been destroyed, not by Roman might, but rather by hatred and factionalism that had weakened the Jewish people and allowed their enemies to overcome them - . The future had to be based on something very different.

Lastly, it should be remembered that the rabbis were not concerned with Jewish survival for the sake of mere continuity. They were driven by a sense of a Jewish mission to bring the idea of a single God to the world, which they would attempt to provide with a model of godly life. This was essential for the future of the whole world. The survival of the Jewish people was essential if this were to happen and this, in turn, depended on Jewish solidarity and mutual responsibility: .


Solid Jews!

The aim of this activity is to reflect on the idea of the underpinnings of Jewish community through the traditional sources, adding depth to the concept and providing a framework for consolidating the student’s opinions.



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29 Nov 2006 / 8 Kislev 5767 0