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Mutual Responsibility

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

All Jews are responsible to keep one another on the proper path.

An excerpt from Rabbi Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought.

The Jewish people accepted their religion together as one unit, and continue to function as a community rather than as mere individuals. All Jews are therefore responsible for one another. Even the responsibility for individual obligations does not rest upon the individual alone, but upon the entire community. It is for this reason that one Jew may recite a blessing for another even if he has already fulfilled his own obligation.

When a single Jew sins, it is not he alone who suffers, but the entire Jewish people. In the Midrash, this is likened to passengers on a single huge ship. Though all the passengers may be very careful not to damage the hull, if one of them takes a drill and begins drilling holes under his own seat, the ship will sink, and all will drown. In the same manner, whenever any Jew does not keep the Torah, all others are affected spiritually. Such actions may even precipitate physical suffering for the Jewish people.

Each Jew's moral responsibility extends beyond the Jewish people to the entire human race, as moral corruption in any place affects the entire world. It is for this reason that Jonah was sent to correct the people of Nineveh, even though theirs was a pagan city.

Nevertheless, we are not required to proselytize and attempt to convert others to Judaism, since a good non-Jew is spiritually better off than a bad Jew…

Misdirecting Others

It is forbidden to cause another to sin in any manner, as we are commanded, "Do not place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). The Torah does not refer here to one who is actually blind, but to one who is blind to the truth and can stumble into sin. This is indicated by the conclusion of the verse, "You must fear your God; I am God," which is only said concerning something which is hidden from the eyes of other human beings.

God Himself regards with contempt anyone who purposely causes another to sin, as it is written, "Cursed is he who misdirects the blind on the way" (Deut. 27:18). Here again the intention is not literal, but refers to a person who is morally or conceptually blinded by another. Furthermore, we are taught that one who causes his fellow to sin is worse than one who murders him.

Since any sin is considered a stumbling block, one is guilty of violating this commandment whether he is an accomplice to a Biblical or to a rabbinical prohibition.

The Biblical prohibition only applies to a true accomplice to the sin, i.e. where the sin could not be done without the help of another Jew, or where one actually brings the sin to a person or tells him to do it. It also includes a case in which one person causes another to sin unknowingly or through an incorrect decision. However, merely giving aid in the performance of a sin which would otherwise have been done does not make one a true accomplice, although it is nevertheless forbidden.

A father may not strike his grown son since the boy is liable to strike him back.

One is guilty of acting as an accomplice even when no wrong is actually committed. It is therefore forbidden to provoke a person, thereby causing him to sin in anger, even though it is not certain that he will do so. It is for this reason that a father may not strike his grown son, since the boy is liable to strike him back.

It is forbidden to cause another to sin, even if this does not result immediately. Similarly, it is forbidden to place another in a predicament in which he may be tempted to sin. For example, it is forbidden to grant a loan without witnesses, since the borrower may be tempted to deny it at a later date.

No Stumbling Block

Non-Jews are required to live a moral life in obedience to the seven commandments given to all mankind. Just as it is forbidden to cause another Jew to sin, so it is forbidden to cause a non-Jew to violate any of these commandments.

Even if a person has left the Jewish fold, or is completely irreligious, it is still forbidden to help or cause him to sin. For example, it is forbidden to even pass non-kosher food to a Jew who is likely to eat it.

Similarly, it is forbidden to sell or lend anything to a person who is likely to use it in committing a sin. For example, one may not sell or lend tools to a person who is likely to use them in violation of Shabbat.

Since it is forbidden to cause a Jew to sin in any manner, one may not even be an accomplice to a non-Jew who may cause another Jew to sin. For example, it is forbidden to give or sell forbidden articles to a non-Jew if he might in turn sell them to an unsuspecting Jew and thereby cause him to sin.

Offering Correction

If a person sees another Jew sinning or following the wrong path, he is required to correct him and attempt to set him right. We are thus commanded, "You must correct your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:17). Even though this commandment specifically only refers to a person violating a Biblical commandment, we are required to correct any person who is doing wrong.

Just as a person makes every attempt to save a friend from physical harm, so should he attempt to save him from spiritual harm. We can learn this from God Himself, as it is written, "God corrects those whom He loves, just like a father [corrects] a child whom he cherishes" (Proverbs 3:12). A person should desire for his friends the same spiritual benefits that he wishes for himself, and it is thus written, "Let your springs be dispersed abroad" (Proverbs 5:16).

A person should correct himself before he attempts to correct others.

A person should correct himself before he attempts to correct others. Otherwise, they will not accept his correction.

Just as we are required to correct others, so are we required to accept corrections. The Torah thus states, "Therefore, cut away the thickening of your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more" (Deut. 10:16).

It is therefore very important to accept correction, as the scripture teaches us, "Correction brings delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them" (Proverbs 24:25). A person who accepts correction is considered wise, as we find, "Correct a wise man and he will love you" (Proverbs 9:8). On the other hand, one who refuses to accept correction is not likely to repent, and he will dies with his sin, as it is written, "He who hates correction shall die" (Proverbs 15:10).

It is therefore the responsibility of every community to encourage its spiritual leaders to speak out and correct them. A congregation that discourages its spiritual leaders from correcting them is considered a congregation of sinners. Regarding them it is written, "They mocked the messengers of God and despised His words… until God's wrath rose against His people and there was not remedy" (2 Chronicles 36:16).

Bearing a Grudge

Just as one is required to correct others with regard to sins against God, so should he do so with respect to sins against his own person. Therefore, if a person has been wronged, he should not keep the hurt to himself, but should speak out to the person who wronged him. We can learn this lesson from Abraham, as we find, "And Abraham admonished Avimelech" (Genesis 21:25). It is forbidden to bear hatred because of such a wrong, as the Torah states, "Do not hate your brother in your heart, [rather] you must correct your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:17)

One who refuses to speak to his neighbor for three days violates the commandment not to hate.

It is therefore forbidden to carry a grudge and refuse to speak to the person who has committed this wrong. We are thus taught that the one who refuses to speak to his neighbor for three days is considered is enemy, and is guilty of violating the commandment not to hate.

It is similarly forbidden to attempt to cover up one's hurt while keeping it in his heart. It is thus written, "Draw me not away with the wicked… who speak peace with their neighbors, but have evil in their hearts" (Psalms 28:3). Nevertheless, if one wishes to forgive the wrongdoer in his heart and not say anything, it is commendable to do so.

Proper Method of Correction

When first correcting a person, one should begin as politely and gently as possible, speaking to him privately, so as not to shame him in any way. If one knows that the person will be ashamed at the mention of the sin, he should not even correct him privately, but should merely hint at the sin and try to draw the person away from it.

If the wrongdoer accepts correction immediately, no more is required, and he should be blessed. If it not accepted, however, one must correct him as many times as necessary in order to bring him to the right path.

One is required to correct a wrongdoer as long as there is any chance that it might have a positive effect. However, if he shows signs of anger, becomes insulting, scornful, or simply refuses to listen, one must stop. It is thus written, "Do not correct a scorner, lest he hate you" (Proverbs 9:8).

If a person does not accept correction privately, one should correct him in the presence of his friends. If this still does not have any effect, one should correct him publicly, shame him, or do anything else in his power to bring him back to the right path.

One is only required to begin correcting a person privately if he sins privately. If one is committing a sin in public, however, where others may learn from him, then he should be publicly corrected.

Where only personal injury is involved, one may only speak up privately, and under no condition shame the person who has committed this wrong. The Torah thus says, "You must correct your neighbor, [but] do not bear a sin because of him" (Leviticus 19:17). That is, you should not bear a sin by publicly shaming him.

Although one is required to prevent another from sinning in any way possible, one is not required to expose himself to any harm in the process. Therefore, one is not required to correct another if he fears that the latter will take revenge and harm him.

When a person must correct an entire congregation, he may speak out and not be concerned lest he shame them. However, one is only required to correct a congregation where there is a chance that they might accept it. If one is certain that his words will go unheeded, he is only required to correct them once, in order that they not be able to plead ignorance. Beyond that, we are taught that just as one has an obligation to speak up when his words will be accepted, so must he refrain from speaking up when they will not.

If one sees his father, rabbi, or teacher violating any law, he is required to correct him, just as he must correct any other person. Even though this might appear disrespectful, God's honor comes before that of any human being, as we are taught, "There is no wisdom, understanding or counsel against God" (Proverbs 21:30). Nevertheless, out of respect, one should do this as indirectly as possible, preferably posing it as a question, "Have you not taught us that this is wrong?"

Unaware He's Doing Wrong

Even if a person is doing something wrong unknowingly, and it is certain that he will ignore any correction, one is still required to correct him where any law written expressly in the torah is concerned. When a law is written in the torah, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

If a law is not written in the torah, however, then the oath regarding mutual responsibility does not apply to it. Therefore, in such a case, if one is doing wrong unknowingly, and it is certain that the correction will be ignored, then nothing need be said. In such a case, we say that it is better for people to do wrong unknowingly, than to do so knowingly.

Where people become accustomed to doing something publicly, it is assumed that they will not accept correction regarding it. However, if there is even a chance that they are doing wrong knowingly, or that the correction will have a positive effect, then one is required to speak up, even where only a rabbinical law is concerned.

We only say that it is better for people to sin unknowingly where very few minor transgressions are involved. However, where people are violating many laws unknowingly, we must correct them in every case, lest our entire religion gradually be forgotten.

Similarly, we only say that it is better for people to sin unknowingly where an old established custom involving all the people is concerned. Where only a few people are involved, they must be corrected, in order that others not learn from them.

If there is any chance of having a good influence, one is required to make every effort.

Although one is required to correct another even where it will be ignored, one is not required to correct a person who is completely non-religious or non-believing. Similarly, one need not correct a person who habitually sins out of spite. The Torah tells us "You must correct your neighbor" (Leviticus 17:19) -- and such individuals are not considered "your neighbor." Nevertheless, if there is any chance whatsoever that one may have a good influence on them, one is required to make every effort.

However, a person who has been brought up in a nonreligious environment where he never had the opportunity to learn about Judaism, is like a child who was abducted, and is not considered to be doing wrong purposely. Even if he is later exposed to authentic Judaism, he is not to be blamed for rejecting it, since it is almost impossible to overcome one's childhood upbringing. Therefore, such a person is not to be counted among the nonbelievers, and he should be approached with love and with every attempt to bring him back to the teachings of our faith.

Reaching Out

One who has the ability to influence others and prevent them from doing wrong is considered responsible for their sins if he fails to do whatever he can. This is true whether he can only influence the members of his own family, or whether he can influence the entire community. Concerning this, God told His prophet, "If you do not speak up to warn the wicked man of his evil ways so that he may live, then that wicked man shall die with his sin, but I will seek his blood from your hand" (Ezekiel 3:18). One who neglects to prevent others from sinning is also included in the Biblical malediction, "Cursed is the man who does not uphold all the words of this Torah" (Deut. 27:26).

Nevertheless, as soon as a person corrects another according to the law, he is released from his responsibility. God thus continues, "but if you warn the wicked man, and he does not turn back from his wickedness, then he shall die with his sins, but you will have saved your own soul" (Ezekiel 3:19). Even when the correction has no effect, one is still rewarded for the attempt. It is thus written, "He who corrects a man shall in the end find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue" (Proverbs 28:23).

One who in any way causes another to do some good, or assists him in doing it, shared the other's reward. Therefore, for example, one can support another who is engaged in Torah study in return for a share of his merit. This is only true, however, before the good deed is completed. After the deed is done, all the money in the world cannot buy a share of its merit.

Conversely, on who causes another to sin shares the responsibility for the sin. If one causes another to sin unknowingly, he can often bear legal as well as moral responsibility for it. It is written, "He who causes the upright to go astray on an evil way, shall himself fall into his own pit" (Proverbs 28:10).

Although one is required to make every effort to prevent another from sinning, one is not required to put out any money to do so. Nevertheless, where one is bringing another back to Judaism completely, then he must make any expenditure with all one's possessions. One is not required to jeopardize life or limb to prevent another from sinning. However, where there is no actual probability of danger, one may not refrain from acting merely because of an unfounded fear or timidity. The Torah thus commands us, "You shall not be afraid of any man" (Deut. 1:17).

Transgressing for the Sake of Another

One is not allowed to sin in order to benefit another. Therefore, one should not violate even a minor law in order to prevent another person from purposely committing a greater sin.

However, where one may be responsible for the other person's sin, or where one has a special responsibility toward the wrongdoer, then one may violate a minor law in order to prevent a serious sin.

Similarly, if another person is being forced to sin, it is permitted to violate a lesser law to save him. If the situation arose through that person's purposeful negligence, however, then he is considered a purposeful wrongdoer.

Before violating any law for the sake of another, one must be very careful to gauge which is the more important. Thus, for example, violating Shabbat is considered among the very worst sins, and therefore, one may not violate Shabbat in order to save another person who is being forced to commit even a most serious sin. If something is only prohibited by rabbinical law on Shabbat, however, the law may be violated in order to prevent another from transgressing a negative commandment, as long as he is not doing it purposefully.

Although one may not violate Shabbat in order to prevent an individual from sinning, one may do so in order to save an entire community that is being forced to sin.

If a person is being forced to leave the fold of Judaism completely, it is permitted to violate Shabbat in any manner in order to save him, since it is better to violate one Sabbath, in order that he may keep many. This is true even where it is not certain that he can be saved.

Even where a community is not responsible for a very young child's religious training, they must violate Shabbat to save him from leaving the fold of Judaism, since if he is estranged from Judaism as a child, he is likely to remain estranged as an adult…

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing). Reprinted with permission.

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