Friday, January 23, 2015

The Obligation To Protest

I've been teaching (along with Prof. Allan Feldman) a course on Rabbi Aryeh Cohen's wonderful book, Justice In The City. Essentially, it's an exposition of Rabbinic understandings of justice. Or, to be fair, it's Cohen's views of those views, because I'm sure that some have a different understanding. Cohen is definitely taking a stand and making an argument--several, actually.

One of them, which we looked at last night, he calls simply "The Obligation To Protest." Put simply, if someone has the opportunity to protest a wrong, and s/he doesn't do so, then s/he is held liable for that wrong. Large or small, it doesn't matter--if I could have said/done something to try to stop it, and I didn't, then that's on me.

It goes against the general Western understanding of guilt and responsibility, which generally tells us that I am not responsible for what you did (with caveats and exceptions, of course). If you did it, then you get blamed and punished. Full stop. But, Judaism takes a more expansive view of responsibility than that. And, I think that if you think it through, Judaism's take actually makes a lot of sense, logically.

Let's say that you are about to drop something, and I could easily catch it. But, I choose not to. So, it hits the floor. Now, forget about morality and judgment for a moment. Just think about logic. Why did that item hit the floor? Well, there are a few reasons. Because you dropped it. Because gravity worked. Because I didn't catch it. My lack of catching is absolutely one of the reasons that it hit the floor so, in the simplest sense of the word, I am responsible for the fact that it did so. At least partially responsible, anyway.

I think that's part of the difference between the Western and the Jewish views on this--the subtle but important difference between blame and responsibility. If we focus on who to blame, and who to punish, then the primary actor is naturally the target. But, if we think about who is responsible for something happening, then the list gets larger. And, that's important, because realizing that I'm responsible might make me more likely to act, even if I'm not the one who's causing something to happen.

I'm firing this off quickly, before I have to leave, so I'm not doing justice to a really powerful, beautiful chapter and idea. But, if there's a takeaway, it's that we need to think less about who to point to as the one to blame, and more about what we can do to stop something from happening. It doesn't matter if it's a tiny, personal issue, or a global catastrophe. If we can try to make something better, and we don't, then we aren't acting righteously.

May Shabbat bring us all peace, and renewed strength to go out and make the world a better place, in every way that we can.

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