I’ve often been troubled by the Talmudic teaching from tractate Shabbat:
The person who can stop the members of their household from sinning, but does not do so, is held accountable for the sins of their household. The person who can stop the people of their city from sinning, but does not do so, is held responsible for the sins of their city’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b)
It reminds me of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham City Jail. Accused of involving himself in local matters which were none of his business, he wrote: ‘I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’
Jewish ethics are rooted in a sense of ultimate accountability. ‘But you shall fear your God’ says the Torah in several key locations in the book of Leviticus. ‘Why does it say those words in precisely those places?’ asks Rashi, before answering that the context refers to wrongdoings which might never be found out by human claimants. Therefore, the Torah reminds us, know that there is One who knows. But here I feel in more familiar, if still uncomfortable, territory: I know what it is like to pace up and down, or lie awake at night, with my conscience burning, my memory yielding uncomfortable after-thoughts, thinking, ‘Did I do that? Did I really, actually say that?’
That, however, concerns only what I myself did. ‘The person who could stop the people of their city from sinning…’- that concerns what I might have done, everything which I too allowed to happen, because I didn’t see, or didn’t hear, or simply don’t care. Accountability is not just about what we do; it is often also about what we fail to do.
I haven’t followed the many stories about Jimmy Savile in great detail. But beyond what key figures in the media did or didn’t know about his conduct, it seems that there must have been a lot of people in different places who realised something wasn’t right, and who turned a blind eye or gave a nod, ‘That’s just the way some men are; it’s what can happen if you’re a young girl’. This I find shocking and disgusting. It’s part of the same evil as trafficking. I hope it truly is the case that attitudes have changed.
But it’s easy to write about an issue in which I’m not involved. How many things nearer home have I seen with my own eyes which I know to be wrong, with which I yet find within myself the capacity to live on unperturbed? How many more matters am I associated with indirectly, – inequities, cruelties, – even if they happen half way across the world, from which I yet draw benefits and don’t care to know the history of how I came to do so?
It seems clear that if some human being was made to do a slave’s work in any part of the production or transport of the food on my table, then that person’s suffering is on my table too. If an animal spent its life in suffering to give the milk on my cereal, then that creature’s pain is also in my plate. And the tears of both, person and animal, are in God’s heart.
I often worry about what to do. The people I admire don’t try to do everything. They resolve to not do nothing and root their motivation not only in justice but also in love.