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Sensitivity to the World Around Us

Editor’s note: This is a transcription of a talk given in the Glueck Beit Midrash on December 17, 2014 by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and professor of Bible at Yeshiva College. This is the original text of the talk, with minor edits by Daniel Shlian. It is presented here in order to share Rabbi Wieder’s words with the greater public. We encourage our readers to leave respectful and thoughtful comments or to write a letter to the editor if they would like to continue the conversation on this important topic.

Here is a link to a recording of the talk: http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/823992/Rabbi_Jeremy_Wieder/Sensitivity_to_the_World_Around_Us

Contrary to the impression that one might have received, Hanukkah celebrates not so much a victory over the Greeks, over Antiochus, but a victory over the mityavnim, over the Jewish extreme Hellenizers, the people who wished to import foreign values and replace the values of Torah with the values of others.  The victory of Hanukkah in effect highlights the berakhah (blessing) of Bil’am: ”hen `am le-badad yishkon” (Num. 23:9),  “Behold, a nation that dwells alone.”  Culturally, we wish to chart our own paths, our own values.  The Midrash in Eikhah Rabbah ( 2:13) states, “’im yomar lekhah adam hokhmah ba-goyim ta’amein, torah ba-goyim ‘al ta’amein”.  If someone tells you that he has found wisdom amongst the gentiles, believe him, but if he tells you he has found torah amongst the gentiles, don’t believe him.  Torah refers to our values.  These are derived from our tradition, not from the world.  Part of being an “`am le-badad” is, as is true for every community, that our first responsibility is to our own.  This is true both on a local level and on a national-religious level.  The verse in parashat mishpatim (Exodus 22:24) states “’im kesef talveh ‘et `ami”, “If you lend money to my people.”  Rashi there quotes from the Mekhilta: “`aniyei `ir-kha va-aniyei `ir aheret, `aniyei `ir-kha kodmin”, the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.  And Rashi further quotes: “`ami ve-goy `aniyei `ami kodeim”: if you have your fellow Jews and you have non-Jews in need, then your first responsibility is to your fellow Jews.  This is true for every community.  Every community is responsible first for its own.  When we speak of tikkun ha-olam in the contemporary sense, fixing the world, we need to remember that it is a value, but it is only one value in a constellation of values and priorities and it is not usually the highest one.  It is certainly not a substitute for Torah or mitzvot, or responsibility to one’s own community, as some would have it.  It is in some ways a small part of and in some ways a supplement to our larger obligations as Torah Jews.

That said, “lo `ale-kha ha-melakhah ligmor”(Mishnah Avot 2:16), we can’t fix everything in the world, but “lo ‘atah ben horin le-hibatel mimenu” (ibid.), but we also can’t ignore our responsibility.  We are members of a larger society, a society that welcomes us as full participants, and that in itself creates responsibilities.  The notion that “`ami ve-goy `aniyei `ami kodeim”, “My nation and a non-Jew: my nation takes precedence” suggests that we prioritize one above the other, not that we completely neglect one of them.  The baraita in Gittin (61a) states, “mefarnesin le-`aniyei `akum va-aniyei yisrael, mevakrin be-holei nokhrim u-be-holei Israel, ve-kovrin meitei nokhrim u-meitei yisrael mi-pnei darkhei shalom.”  We have a responsibility not only to bury our own dead, not only to support our own poor, not only to visit our own sick, but to do that for the rest of society as well.  And while we do not share all of the values of the culture and society in which we live—nor should we—there are those values which we most certainly share and which we are responsible for helping to uphold.  Amongst those values are tzedek and mishpat, justness and justice.  These are common values that we possess and which are central to every civilized society.  Obviously, we bear some responsibility to the entire world as well, but our capacity to respond is limited.  While it is not easy to feel the pain of every society that is suffering, when scores of innocent children are mowed down by fanatics halfway across the world, it should evoke a response.  However, it is not easy given how far removed it is from our world.  Furthermore, it sometimes begins to resemble what R.  Gamliel in gemara Shabbat (13b) describes, “ein besar hameit margish be-izmil”, “Dead flesh does not feel the knife.”  We have suffered so much and so often that each additional suffering is like sticking a knife in dead flesh.  The repeated occurrences and distance makes it hard to respond on an emotional level, even if in principle we should.

When it is closer to home, however, we have a greater responsibility to try to respond at least emotionally, to be moved and to feel the suffering of others.  A week and a half ago, I was at Stern College for a shabbaton.  At the tisch, one of the students asked me about how one ought to respond to the events that occurred in Ferguson and in Staten Island.  I commented at the time that I saw a difference between the two events.  In one situation, I thought that the events were unclear.  It could be what happened was justified.  But the other one, I commented that based upon media reports, it seemed that there really was a problem, that a person who was innocent was killed by the police, and that there was no justification.  That’s what I said at the time; I added that I wasn’t sure what the appropriate response should be, but that clearly there is something wrong.

The following week, however, I actually watched the video of Eric Garner’s death, and I was almost in a state of shock watching;  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Nothing that I had said previously was wrong—my response was fundamentally, I think, correct—but the video had a transformative impact.  I could not believe what I was seeing.  I saw what could best be termed halakhically a ma’aseh retzihah—an act of murder—the murder of an individual by a group of members of law enforcement—an individual who was not a danger to anyone, who was not violent, and who cried repeatedly, “I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe.”  I am no expert in the details of chokeholds, but the coroner determined that Mr. Garner died of asphyxiation as a result of compression of his throat and chest.  I don’t know what the police are taught in training, but if the rules permit this kind of behavior, then they can have no validity or standing.  No human being has the right to legislate or permit behavior that can or sometimes does lead to the death of people who are not deserving of death.  Even if such a law were to be passed it would ipso facto be null and void in our eyes.  But to be truthful, I doubt such a law or regulation exists or was being followed in this case.

Let me repeat and be clear.  This was, from the vantage point of halakhah, a ma’aseh retzihah.  Granted, it was not be-meizid, it was not premeditated, it was not intentional.  But the shedding of blood, even unintentionally, is considered shefikhut damim.  The punishment for retzihah be-meizid (intentional murder) is mitat bet din (the death penalty).  The punishment for retzihah be-shogeig (unintentional murder) is galut (exile to the cities of refuge.)  Retzihah be-shogeig requires kapparah (atonement.)  And then there is a category called shogeig karov le-meizid (criminally negligent murder), for which there is no death penalty, but for which galut is not a sufficient kapparah.  Its perpetrator, in the theoretical halakhic society, is not sheltered by the `arei miklat, the cities of refuge, but is condemned to a life of having to avoid the clutches of the go’el ha-dam (the blood avenger.)  What I see in front of my eyes watching this video is a retzihah of shogeig karov le-meizid.  It is no different than the shaliah bet din (court officer) who adds on an extra lash and kills the defendant and would, in principle, be considered a shogeig karov le-meizid.  What I saw with my own eyes was none other than shefikhut damim through negligence.

There are aveirot (sins) in the Torah which receive a greater punishment than shefikhut damim.  Avodah zarah (idolatry) and Shabbat and some of the arayot (forbidden sexual relations) are punished with sekilah (stoning), and we normally take the homer ha-onesh (severity of the punishment) to reflect, on some level, the homer ha-averah (the severity of the sin.)  But only shefikhut damim damages the world in an extremely destructive fashion.  The Rambam (Maimonides), in Hilkhot Rotzeah u-Shemirat Nefesh 4:9, speaks about the punishment of kippah for someone who is clearly guilty of murder but for some technical reason cannot be executed.  Rambam states, following the Mishnah and gemara in Sanhedrin, that we put him in prison and we make sure that he dies in short order, in a passive fashion.  Rambam goes on to explain that kippah is limited to retzihah, and he explains why.  He states:

We don’t do this (i.e. kippah) to others who are liable for capital punishment.  If one is found guilty we execute him, and if not, we set him free. Even though there are sins more severe than bloodshed, they don’t destroy civilization in the manner that bloodshed does.  Even idolatry, and certainly sexual immorality and the desecration of Shabbat, are not like bloodshed, for these sins are between a person and God, but bloodshed is between people.  Anyone who has committed this sin is an absolute rasha (wicked person) and all of the mitzvot which he performed throughout his life cannot equate (to offset) this and they will not save him from judgment … One can learn from Ahab the idol worshipper about whom it said, “no one was like Ahab (who twisted himself to do what is bad in the eyes of God)” but when his sins and merits were brought before God, it was only the blood of Navot which assured his destruction ... and he didn’t even kill him with his hands, but caused it, a fortiori for one who does it with his own hands.

In fact, he didn’t even kill, he didn’t even arrange it; it was his wife Jezebel.   As such, we cannot stand by while innocent blood is shed.  And especially when that blood is shed by sheluhei didan, by our agents.  The government, the police, they are sheluhei didan (our agents) and we are responsible for their actions.

The gemara in Shabbat (54b) states, “Kol me she-‘efshar limhot ve-lo mihah nitpas `al ‘oto `avon” - anyone who can make a protest and does not do so, is held responsible for that sin.  There is a difference between tokhahah (rebuke, Leviticus 19:17) and meha’ah (protest).  Tokhahah, the mitzvah of rebuke, is only a mitzvah if it will be effective or at least might be effective.  If it stands no chance of succeeding, it’s not a mitzvah and sometimes it’s an aveirah (a sin).  But meha’ah is relevant even if it won’t succeed.  It is as much for the one who is making the protest as for the target of the protest.  To stand by and remain silent makes one an accessory.  Thus, when a fellow human being, with a tzelem Elokim (endowed with the image of God) just like ours, is murdered and we witness it with our own eyes, how can we let the moment pass without some reaction? Every act of murder is terrible, and every loss of innocent life is a tragedy.  But when it happens at the hands of the organs of justice of our society, and the system of justice fails to recognize what has happened, some kind of meha’ah is in order.

To be honest, however, I’m not sure what the appropriate meha’ah is.  I’m not an activist, I’m not an organizer.  I do know that meha’ah should not be counterproductive—it should not alienate the people you’re trying to persuade.  Beyond that, I can’t tell you exactly what it should be.  But I implore all of you to do one small thing.  I ask those of you who haven’t seen the video to take three minutes be-zman she-hu lo yom ve-lo laylah (at a time which is neither day nor night) to watch it.  Chazal sometimes use an expression, “lo tehei shemi`ah gedolah me-re’iyah,” hearing about something cannot compare to actually witnessing it.  What I heard with my ears cannot compare to what I saw with my eyes.  If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then the video is worth a million.

Why do I choose to talk about this here, or, better said, why do I think this message is particularly relevant to us? My job in life is to study and teach Torah; your job is to sit and learn Torah.  Many of you, like myself, would be happy if we were left alone to spend our days studying Torah day and night.  But there are times when we must stop and make a meha’ah so that they don’t say, “Ho’il ve-havah tatvei rabanan ve-lo mahu bah, shema minah ka niha lehu”, since the rabbis sat and said nothing once can conclude that they assent, that our silence indicates some type of acquiescence.  There are many specific reasons why this issue is relevant to us.

1) First, this is not just an ordinary act of retzihah; this is an act, as I said, perpetrated by sheluhei didan (our agents.)  And even though the gemara in Kiddushin (42b) tells us ein shaliah le-dvar `aveirah (there is no agency for the commission of sin), nonetheless, the meshaleah (the authorizer) is still culpable be-dinei shamayim (in the court of Heaven.)  And I wish to be clear here.  I believe that most of our sheluhim in the NYPD are good people who strive to do their jobs sincerely and honestly, and serve the people of this city with distinction, and they are asked to do a really hard job.  But sometimes this is not the case.

2) Second: The issue here is not exclusively about race.  The destruction of a tzelem elokim and inherent tragedy should shock us regardless of race or creed.  But race certainly plays a role in this story.  Our history as a people teaches us what it is like to be the oppressed.  We suffered for numerous millennia, centuries, at the hands of authorities—official oppressors—from Pharaoh to Antiochus to Hadrian to the medieval Crusaders to Hitler, yemah shemo.  And in many corners of the world outside of Medinat Yisrael (Israel) and this country, the specter of anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again.  And sometimes, it is perpetrated or fostered by the authorities.  We need to be sensitive to others in the same position.  The African-American community, to the extent that one can speak of it as a monolithic entity, faces many difficulties and hardships.  Not all of them are the fault of broader society, and many of them cannot be solved by broader society, but make no mistake: a significant part of that misfortune and suffering is the legacy of slavery, segregation, overt discrimination, and even more commonly and often unconsciously, stereotyping and bias.  As Jews, we are no strangers to discrimination and stereotyping, some of which still persists in the dark corners in this country.  The Torah warns us about ona’at ha-ger (inflicting emotional pain on a convert) - According to R.  Eliezer ha-Gadol in the gemara in Bava Metzi’a (59b) - 36 or 46 times.  And why does the Torah warn us about ona’at ha-ger? Because “ki gerim heyitem be-eretz Mitzrayim”, “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”  We know what it is like because we have been there, and we should act accordingly.  The gemara in Shabbat (31a) tells the story of Hillel and the ger (convert), who asks him to teach him the Torah on one foot.  The essence, according to Hillel, is de`alakh seni, le-havrakh lo ta`aveid.  Whatever is repulsive to you, don’t do to someone else.  If we complain—and we do—when the world remains silent in the face of mistreatment of Jews, how dare we remain silent of the suffering of others in our own backyard? Just put yourselves in the shoes of the other person—how would you feel if your yarmulka made you suspect in the eyes of law enforcement?

3) Third and finally, and maybe most importantly, the world of the beit midrash needs to be one of concern and compassion for others, a torat hesed (a torah of kindness).  As the Rambam states in hilkhot Shabbat (2:3), the mishpetei ha-Torah (laws of the Torah) are not nekamah ba-olam—they are not vengeful and they are not harsh—but they are rahamim ve-hesed ve-shalom (compassionate, kind and peaceful.)  We cannot solve all the problems of the world, and perhaps we shouldn’t try, either.  But we must be models of bayshanim, rahmanim, and gomelei hasadim (possessing a sense of shame, compassionate, and performers of acts of kindness).  We must not be, nor appear to be, callous or indifferent to the suffering of those outside our dalet amot (four cubits).

As I mentioned earlier, Hanukkah in some way represents not allowing the outside in.  But the reverse isn’t true.  The mitzvah of the lights of Hanukkah is about shining the light outwards.  And the light is ki ner mitzvah ve-Torah or (Proverbs 6:23)—it is the light of Torah.  And we often forget that our Torah and many values have enormous relevance not only for us, but for the rest of the world as well.  We have a lot that we can and should teach the world.  Western society has many virtues, but sometimes looking at our society, one might see what Yirmiyahu ha-Navi (Jeremiah 4:23) described as ra’iti ’et ha’aretz ve-henei tohu va-vohu ve-’el ha-shamayim ve-’ein ’oram, “I look at the land and it is barren and empty, and at the heavens and their light is absent.”  There are many places in our society where there is a spiritual and moral vacuum, and our job is to shine the light of Torah on them.  And part of the message of Torah is tzedek tzedek tirdof (Deut.  16:20), the pursuit of justice.  We are responsible for creating a just and fair society for all of our citizens.

The Netziv (R.  Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, last head of the Volzhin Yeshiva, d. 1893), in his somewhat famous and very powerful introduction to his commentary on humash (the Pentateuch), in Sefer Bereshit (Genesis), speaks about the fact that Sefer Bereshit is referred to as Sefer Ha-yashar (the Book of the Just.)  Why is it called the sefer ha-yashar? The yesharim (the just ones) were the avot (patriarchs) —Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov.  He explains that they were called yesharim because of their concern for people who were not in their own dalet amot.  Avraham Avinu pleaded with and badgered  the Ribbono shel olam (Master of the Universe) on behalf of the people of Sodom, who were the worst kinds of wicked people in the world you could have, but because of the patriarchs’ overwhelming sense of magnanimity, their generosity, their spirit of ahavat ha-briyot (love of humanity), they cared about everyone around them.  As the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, we have a responsibility to follow in their path and show our concern and compassion for those around us who are downtrodden.  And hence, the shefikhut damim by sheluhei didan demands a meha’ah.

I implore you, again, to watch the video.  At a minimum, you should be able to feel the pain of a man whose blood was spilled needlessly, the pain of his family, and the pain of his community, that with a good deal of justification, feels oppressed.  And thus, in the spirit of ve-halakhta bi-derakhav, imitatio Dei, that we imitate the ways of God, we say that when we are in exile, the Ribbono shel olam comes with us—imo anokhi be-tzarah (Ps.  91:15).  We may still be suffering, but what alleviates our suffering is that the Ribbono shel olam suffers with us.  And in that spirit we, too, need to make sure that we feel the pain of others who are suffering.