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Being Held Accountable

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“Rab and Rabbi Hanina, Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Habiba taught [the following]: Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world” (Shabbat 54b).


Clearly, however, the issue is a complex one that needs nuance. There is a difference between a perpetrator and a bystander. It is one thing to commit a crime, another to witness someone committing a crime and failing to prevent it. We might hold a bystander guilty, but not in the same degree. The Talmud uses the phrase “is seized.” This may mean that he is morally guilty. He can be called to account. He may be punished by “the Heavenly Court” in this world or the next. It does not mean that he can be summoned to court and sentenced for criminal negligence.


The issue famously arose in connection with the German people and the Holocaust. The philosopher Karl Jaspers made a distinction between the moral guilt of the perpetrators and what he called the metaphysical guilt of the bystanders:


Jaspers said,


There exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially if a crime is committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent them, I too am guilty. If I was present at the murder of others without risking my life to prevent it, I feel guilty in a way not adequately conceivable either legally, politically or morally. That I live after such a thing has happened weighs upon me as indelible guilt.


Real guilt, says Jaspers, cannot be reduced to legal categories. Shimon and Levi may have been right in thinking that the men of Shechem were guilty of doing nothing when their prince abducted and assaulted Dinah, but that does not mean that they were entitled to execute summary justice by killing all the males. Jacob was right in seeing this as a brutal assault. In this case, Nachmanides’s position seems more compelling than that of Maimonides.


One of Israel’s most profound moralists, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), wrote that though there may have been an ethical justification for what Shimon and Levi did, “there is also an ethical postulate which is not itself a matter of rationalization and which calls forth a curse upon all these justified and valid considerations.” There may, he says, be actions that can be vindicated but are nevertheless accursed. That is what Jacob meant when he cursed his sons.


Collective responsibility is one thing. Collective punishment is another.



Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”

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