‘If he was a witness and saw, or knew, but didn’t tell, then he must bear his guilt.’ (Leviticus 5:1) The verse refers to perjury or contempt of court, the failure to disclose the truth under oath. But in the context of the report on Jimmy Savile, and in the light of what we know about being passive bystanders to wrong, it rings with a much more disturbing resonance.
Evil is not overcome by doing nothing about it, let alone by telling the victim to be quiet and stop causing trouble. ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ a woman attacked by Savile was told; ‘he’s famous’.
Evil is corrosive. It devours the conscience of the perpetrator. Maimonides says that a person has up to three chances to amend their ways; after that the sin becomes so habituated and one’s moral judgement so corrupted that one loses the capacity to see wrong for wrong.
It infects those who know about it, but take no action. There are forms of moral ugliness to which we simply become habituated; we slide into compliance and they become the norm. Usually, but not always, a gradual process of coarsening takes place as increasingly objectionable forms of sexism, racism and discrimination become ‘acceptable,’ until the very soul of an institution, or entire society, is sullied and ceases to know right from wrong.
Sometimes this derives from complacent passivity. Sometimes, and far more understandably, fear induces moral cowardice; in such situations it eventually takes deep courage, to the extent of risking reputation or even life, to confront wrongdoing. But sometimes the tolerance of wrong is a form of voyeurism, a kind of: ‘I wouldn’t do it myself, but is it really so terribly bad?’ or, worse, ‘they had it coming, the scum.’
The Torah insists that we speak out in the face of wrong: ‘You must surely reprove your fellow citizen, and not bear sin on their account.’ (Leviticus 19:17) The command sounds categorical: ‘If you fail to object, you become party to the sin.’ (The rabbis also read this as a warning against causing needless humiliation: – be sensitive, even in rebuke. Perhaps this is the origin of “constructive criticism.”)
However, the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) concedes that reproof isn’t so simple:
Just as one is commanded to say what will be listened to, so one is commanded not to say what won’t be listened to. Abba said: ‘It’s a duty [to discriminate in this manner] as Scripture says, ‘Don’t reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he’ll love you.’ (Proverbs 9:8)
In other words, there is indeed a time to keep one’s mouth shut. People can’t be expected to risk further contempt from high-ups who refuse to listen. To know how and with whom to share an uncomfortable truth is a challenge which has kept many people lying awake in the cold sweat of tormented thoughts.
On the other hand, the Talmud also says (Bava Metzia 31a)
‘You shall surely reprove:’ [I know this applies] from teacher to pupil; but [how do I know] it also applies from pupil to teacher? Because the Torah states emphatically: ‘You shall surely reprove’ – whatever the circumstances.
In other words, neither status nor station should constitute a barrier to truth expressed with due consideration.
It’s easy now to join the condemnation of the Saviles of this world, well after the event. But what forms of cruelty, injustice and denigration do we tolerate on such a regular basis that we are liable even to forget they exist, so inured have we become to their presence?