Is ‘For Whom Are We Responsible’ the Right Question?

PP12_cover[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Scott Aaron

For whom are we responsible? There is a uniquely 21st century paradox hidden in this question, namely that for most of our history this question would have been heard simply as rhetorical amongst our people. For whom are we responsible? Ourselves, of course! The Sages clearly stated as far back as the 4th century C.E. in the Babylonian Talmud (Shavuot 39a), “all Israel is responsible for each other.” “All Israel” i.e. all Jews. After all, living in the Age of Faith as our ancestors did up until the onset of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, the common wisdom was that a particular god prioritized his own followers in terms of blessings, riches and prosperity. Followers of other gods whose lives consisted of suffering, poverty and subjugation were seen as demonstrating the weakness or even the non-existence of their particular gods as well as the triumph and power of the particular god of those who prospered and conquered. Jews were treated as the primary proof of this world view in both Christianity and Islam during the Age of Faith by being denied throughout that age access to some or all of their respective societies’ benefits, protections and opportunities. Our Sages therefore imbedded in our law the principle that all Israel must take care of each other primarily because no one else would do so. At the same time though, our Sages also decreed in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 61a):

“Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” By this our Sages meant that Jews should do these acts of compassion for two reasons, namely that we should not antagonize or provoke our oppressors by withholding basic human decency and also that we should see ourselves, and our particular god, as better than them by showing human kindness to those who do not reciprocate it as a particular matter of faith. So for most of our history we were responsible for our own people by necessity; we took care of the gentile out of self-interest. Moreover these expectations were incumbent upon all of us because for most of history the Jewish community thought of itself in the aggregate. The idea that the individual’s obligation to self would regularly trump that of the individual to the community arises only with the Age of Reason, and the Jews have been struggling to find a balance between the two ever since.

When the Enlightenment swept through 19th century Western Europe, the individual self-interest of the Jew came in to stark conflict with their communal obligations. When Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn (1724-1786) wrote that “…the Supreme Being revealed them all (the laws of the Torah) to all rational beings, by events and by ideas, and inscribed them in their soul, in a character legible at all times and in all places…,” he asserted that the human ability of reason allowed all people, not just Jews, to access G-d’s laws and wisdom as universal truths.[1] This concept may seem obvious today amongst the vast majority of Jews around the world, but it split the proverbial Sea of Jews at the time. After all, if the Jew could determine universal truths with the gentile through reason, then the Jew could also determine through reason what was not true in Judaism. Commanded daily religious practices for example, especially those that were mandated by human Sages rather than found in the revealed Torah, from covering one’s head to following kashrut to praying for the coming of the Messiah could be reasoned away as not within the universal truths of the bible or at least no longer true in an enlightened age. While the emphasis on reason was seen as paving the way for the potential advancement of the Jew in to the larger world as an intellectual equal, and an unprecedented opportunity for immediate material and educational opportunities that Jews had previously assumed would only be available after G-d redeemed us all to Israel, it also was seen by many Jews as a threat of defiance of G-d’s will as grave as those that triggered our exile from that same Israel in the days of the Temple. It is no small wonder that the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) wrote as a warning to his followers “… may your mind not turn to evil and never engage in corruptible partnership with those fond of innovations who … have strayed from the Almighty and His law! Do not touch the books of Rabbi Moses [Mendelssohn] from Dessau, and your foot will never slip….”[2]

And now, over two centuries after the Enlightenment, we still struggle amongst ourselves with whether our Jewish world is one of universal innovation or particular corruption. The Enlightenment led directly to the various forms of Zionism that inspired the early chalutzim and their supporters to build the resulting modern nation-state of Israel. At the same time, the Enlightenment also led directly to the Holocaust where 6,000,000 of us were slaughtered in accordance with the “science” of eugenics and racial hygiene. Jews of Israel and the West live in an age of undreamed-of wealth, political power and social acceptance by the majority, while Jews of the East are still viewed as foreigners, fifth columnists and economic manipulators by the majority. Perhaps the Enlightenment’s greatest impact today is that far more Jews in the West, even many Israelis, are comfortable living with and among the gentile than we are with each other, and we retreat to opposite corners of secularism and dogma to turn our backs on each other rather than try to find common commitments and ideals that impact us all. For whom are we responsible? How about asking instead “what is our responsibility to each other?” We Jews have spent enough time defining ourselves by what we do or don’t believe or accept in the last two centuries and who we reject as a result; let’s focus instead on what we all need to ensure to survive and thrive both as a community and as part of a globalized world.

[1] Moses Mendelssohn, 1783, Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism, in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz (eds.), The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. 87. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.]
[2] Ibid, 156, Ethical Will of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer).

Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D, works on Jewish communal growth and sustainability at the Agency for Jewish Learning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.