“He who can restrain the members of his household from committing a sin but does not will be held responsible for his household. If he can restrain the people of his city, he will be held responsible for the people of his city. If he can restrain the whole world – all of it – he will be held responsible for the whole world, all of it.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b)
It’s simple. Because we live in a community, because we share life with others, we each bear a responsibility for making our community a better place, a place of goodness, a place where the dignity of all people is upheld and honored, a place that is free from intolerance and hatred. The Talmud passage quoted above says even more than that. It says that if we can stop an act of evil, if we can do something to thwart an act that is morally wrong, if we can prevent someone from expressing hatred or intolerance, and we don’t act, then we are responsible for the consequences of that evil.
The Talmudic passage above is a comment on a verse in this week’s Torah portion:
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall surely reprove your fellow but incur no guilt because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17)
The Torah instructs us to “reprove our fellow,” to correct bad behavior when we see it. Some of the commentaries on the verse say that we must do this under all circumstances, even if we find it uncomfortable or awkward or even if we are risking making the other person feel bad or embarrassed. Other commentaries suggest that the second part of the verse— ‘incur no guilt because of him’—teaches us that when rebuking someone for an error they committed we must uphold their dignity and prevent them (not the one doing the rebuking) from feeling guilty. Still others suggest that we cannot meaningfully rebuke someone with whom we are not friendly. A rebuke that is the product of love is more effective.
Of course, it requires judgement to know when, and if, to rebuke someone or correct their behavior. Certainly the Torah isn’t calling on us to rebuke someone for doing something we don’t happen to like or find personally annoying. The verse instead seems to focus on breaches of proper behavior between people, such as insults and expressions of disrespect, ethical lapses, and moral infractions that offend society’s values.
The Torah’s urging to reprove someone who is doing something wrong, and the Talmud’s statement that if we don’t do something about bad behavior then we are responsible for its consequences, were put to the test in our community in recent days. Two children from South Orange Middle School posted on Instagram, an online social media site, a collage of hateful images– a swastika surrounded by Stars of David, symbols of the Soviet Union, raised middle fingers and a photo of the collapse of the World Trade Center, set against a background of the rainbow flag, as well as two students standing on a porch, looking into the distance, with a caption that said “views from the schwitz,” likely a reference to Auschwitz. What was perhaps most disturbing about this incident was the fact that the posts received 90 “likes,” which could be interpreted as anything from an endorsement of the message to a desire to conform to whatever a group is doing even if the group is doing something offensive or wrong.
To be clear, the school administration quickly responded to the incident by meeting with the children and their families. As I wrote to you a couple of days ago, a meeting attended by the Rabbis of South Orange and other clergy, a representative of the New Jersey chapter of the ADL, Principal Irby and school officials, district officials and social workers, was also held this week to discuss how our community should respond to such hateful gestures. What emerged from the meeting was that, while there were some threads of anti-Semitism in the posts and other expressions made offline to Jewish children, the boys who posted and the families they come from are certainly not hardcore anti-Semites or White Supremacists.
Of greater concern is that almost nobody was willing to confront the boys who posted hateful messages online. Students were not willing to reject the expression of hate and intolerance. They could have posted comments of opposition online or could have spoken out against what they read on Instagram. Perhaps that didn’t happen because children are often more concerned about fitting in and social acceptance. Even some parents wanted their children to stay out of the fray for fear they would be caught up in something ugly. We live in a community that prides itself in its diversity, tolerance and harmony. But there is some reason to believe that we still have problems to solve and divisions to overcome.
It takes courage to stand up, sometimes alone, against hate and intolerance. But the Talmud and our tradition teaches us that the fate of our community, and our world, may rest on our willingness to “rebuke our fellow,” to stand up even if we feel it’s unpopular or awkward to do so, for what is right and true.