Open Zion (Daily Beast): "For Shame" by APN's Rabbi Alana Suskin


Sahar Segal suggests that American Jews ought to feel no shame for Israel's actions. Her prooftext is the Talmud where it says “kol Yisrael arevim ze la-ze”—all Jews are responsible for one another.

She then goes on to explain:

The prevailing rabbinic interpretation is that this only holds true only when one could have protested before the sinner and been heeded (BT Sanhedrin 27b). Members of a group have a responsibility to keep one another far from crime; but once a crime is committed, they are only responsible for it if they could have prevented it from taking place. Merely being a Jew is not enough to confer blame for Israel’s actions, and thus not enough to cause shame.

Since American Jews could not have prevented the actions, she states, we should feel no shame (and likewise should take no pride in Israel's accomplishments). She’s right that the rabbis don’t expect us to feel shame for the actions of others, but she’s wrong in understanding the passage so narrowly: It’s not about shame. It’s about mutual responsibility.

Our sages would likely hold American Jews culpable for the sins of Israeli Jews—and the reverse. We are obligated by Jewish tradition to prevent wrongdoing before it happens, and rebuke those who have done it after it has been done. For example, in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 54b-55a we are presented with this Rabbinic moment:

Rav and Rabbi Hanina, Rabbi Johanan and Rav Habiba taught: 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. Rav Papa observed, and the members of the Head Exilarch’s [household] are seized for the whole world. Even as Rabbi Hanina said, Why is it written, The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of his people, and the princes thereof: if the princes sinned, how did the elders sin? But say, [He will bring punishment] upon the elders because they do not forbid the princes.

Segal says that American Jews are not obligated to call out injustice wherever they see it. But do the sages agree? The above passage suggests that Jews are obligated to rebuke, especially other Jews, whenever they see evil done, regardless of who is doing it.

Just a bit later on the same page of Talmud this theme continues. The discussion poses an argument: In the book of Ezekiel, God is determined to wipe out a city, which is full of wickedness. But God tells a messenger to go through the city and place a sign upon the foreheads of "the people that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst thereof," in order to save those individuals. The angel protests that those people to whom God would be merciful could have rebuked the wicked, but did not do so—so how could they have been perfectly righteous? God says that the people knew that they would not be heeded. But the angel protests, "Even if you know, how could they have known?" In other words, there was no way for them to know if they could have been successful. In the end, God does indeed spare them, but the sages clearly are making the case that while God may know that protests will not be heeded, we have no way of knowing, and so must err on the side of speaking out.

And we don't even need to go that far. We already know that the protests of American Jews have in some cases successfully swayed the Israeli government. The fact that Americans have not yet been successful in ending occupation, dismantling the settlements, and curbing the abuse of Palestinian children, means that not only ought we to be ashamed of these specific Israeli actions, but we ought to be ashamed of our own—for not trying hard enough to succeed in making that change.

Recently there’s been a great deal of mindless chatter about whether American Jews—especially young Jews—are more disengaged from Israel. Segal implies that it doesn’t matter if we disengage—that indeed, we are two separate countries with no need to feel each others’ victories and defeats. But the Jewish tradition has long insisted on a special relationship—between one Jew and another and between Jews and the land of Israel. And there are feelings that we ought to and need to have for one another, including shame and pride. Regardless of whether there is or is not growing disengagement, we need to continue to forge a deeper relationship—American Jews should feel shame; we have not yet ended the occupation.

In the midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6:11), Rabbi Tarfon compared the Jewish people to a pile of nuts. If one walnut is removed, each and every nut in the pile is shaken and disturbed. So too, when a single Jew is in distress, every other Jew is shaken. When any Jew is engaged in wrongdoing, we should feel ashamed, as should she, and work to end it.

This article appeared first on July 12, 2012 in The Daily Beast's Open Zion