Rabbis Without Borders
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Like a great many others have over these past few days, I have read the incredibly powerful letter written by the young woman who was raped by Brock Turner. In past weeks it has felt like we have been riding several tides of outrage… outrage expressed in politics, presidential campaigns, and by the masses who are drawn more to the outrage than to thoughtful ideas that could address the concerns that drive the outrage. Then, last week, the outrage over the shooting, to keep safe a small boy, of a gorilla in a zoo. In the latter example, the fact that the tragedy of a momentary turn away from one child to attend to another led to the unfolding of such a terrifying scene for a mother and a tragic consequence for a gorilla should more properly have been, in my opinion, a time for extreme empathy and not outrage. But how easy it is to press the outrage button these days as the knee-jerk response to emotionally and socially complex situations.
However, in the case of Brock Turner’s rape of a young woman, the sentencing that was passed down and the reasoning for it may well be an appropriate cause for communally-expressed outrage. To those who have pondered what responsibility the young woman might have for what transpired, given her heavy drinking on the night in question, I think one brief comment I saw is the response you’ve been looking for: “A hangover… she expected a hangover.”
Taking full responsibility for how a young woman’s life was turned upside down and for the choice to sexually attack someone… it is the absence of a clear and deep statement of responsibility, and an understanding of what Turner did to this woman, that has caused the outrage. His father’s letter to the court reflects on his son’s deep remorse over the events of that night but it is couched in so much irrelevant information in defense of his son that it is not at all clear that this father, let alone his son, truly understands that it is the heinous crime of sexual assault that Brock has been found guilty of, or what that truly does to a woman who is the victim of such an assault.
Last night with my monthly Spiritual Journey Group that meets to do Mussar study together, we were reflecting on the character trait of responsibility. While we did not reflect on any of these current events we, nevertheless, raised up a number of teachings from this Jewish wisdom tradition that I think can be useful to us all as we look more closely at what causes our feelings of outrage and how what happens to others can guide us to be more self-aware of our own ability to take responsibility for our actions.
In his Mussar guide, Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis points out the two potential etymological roots of the Hebrew word used for the trait of responsibility – Achrayut. We see within it both the word acharei, which means “after” and the word acher, which means “other.” Embedded in the word itself, therefore, is both an understanding that responsibility is about thinking through the consequences (or the “after”) of one’s actions, to the best of one’s abilities, and is also about how we treat and care for each other in every kind of interaction, from the most mundane and fleeting to the most significant and long-lasting.
In the course of our personal reflections, I shared a couple of stories. In the first, we were responding to a teaching of Rav Yehuda in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma, that Morinis summarizes in his book. Commenting on a question of how one can develop personal piety, Rav Yehuda suggests that we learn and know how to practice the laws around civil torts (the laws of damages).
Our group initially found this to be a rather unimpressive example of how one would learn about taking responsibility. “Surely” one expressed, “that is just about knowing laws and the legal consequences for certain actions, but we know that this doesn’t always align with what is truly of significance when looking for a deeper understanding of the consequences of our behaviors?”
Perhaps. But I recalled a time in my mid-20s when I was living in Brighton, England, while teaching university for a year there. I was looking for an opportunity to do some further Jewish learning for myself and found a Talmud class at a local synagogue. We were looking at some sugyot (sections) about damages and, in particular, a situation where a shopkeeper had chosen to display his wares on the sidewalk in front of his shop. A passerby had tripped over them and a pot had been broken. Who was responsible? The rabbinic voices of the Talmud express a variety of opinions. Ultimately, I eventually realized, the learning that I gained from those weeks of study was not knowing what the majority opinion was on who owed whom and how much. Rather, by traveling with the rabbis to consider the responsibility of the shopkeeper and the responsibility of the passerby, we gained a deeper understanding of what it meant to take responsibility for our own actions and what it meant to truly feel responsible for the welfare of another.
Morinis also reflects on what is at the core of our resistance to taking responsibility. He quotes Rabbi Elyahim Krumbein who states:
We diagnosed gaava [arrogance] as stemming from lack of self-esteem — the wallowing preoccupation with one’s past achievements, which is needed to compensate for the missing conviction of self-worth.
He is explaining that healthy self-esteem is required for one to live a responsible life. When it is our own ego that needs feeding and a desire for self-gratification in the present moment overrides our ability to think through the consequences of our actions or our consideration for the ‘other’ who will be impacted by what we do next, we are derailed from truly taking responsibility.
There is much here in these Jewish wisdom teachings to help us respond to what takes place around us and, most significantly, to better recognize what our responses to the plight of others can teach us about what we need to do for ourselves.
I want to conclude with an interpretation of a piece of Torah. After the Children of Israel had built a Golden Calf as a focus of worship, anxious that Moses may never be seen again, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, smashes the 10 commandments in outrage, but then returns to the mountain to plead on behalf of the people before God. He then does something rather paradoxical given that the crime of the people may have been to feel the need for a physical manifestation to represent the object of their worship. He asks to see God. And God responds that ‘no human can see the face of God and live’ (Exodus 33:20). But God then has Moses placed in a crevice in the rock and tells him that God will pass by and Moses can see his acherai. With God, as with each other, we can never truly know or understand what is before us in the moment. We can only be seen by our ‘after’. Made in the likeness of God, our legacy is built upon the consequences of our actions and the impact we leave on our world and on the others we share this world with. That is quite a responsibility.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.