Social Responsibilities

Our decisions to ignore or respond to members of our communities who are in danger determine the justice and morality of our society.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains a large number of the commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Nearly one-eighth of the 613 are found here, 72 according to Maimonides and 74 according to the Sefer HaChinuch, an anonymous medieval work focusing on the meaning and practice of the mitzvot (commandments).

Included here are prohibitions against the mixing of cotton and wool and against wearing clothing associated with the opposite gender. We also find the commandment to wear tassels, later interpreted as tzitzit, on our four-cornered garments. Although the majority of the laws are concerned with moral values and the creation of a just society, here we find laws concerning fair treatment of the debtor, the laborer and the unloved wife.

Following are two excerpts from the Torah portion:

Deuteronomy 22:1-4

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass. You shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find. You must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.

Deuteronomy 22:23-27

In the case of a virgin who is engaged to a man: If a man comes upon her in town and lies with her, you shall take the two of them out to the gate of that town and stone them to death–the girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. Thus you will sweep away evil from your midst. But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl. The girl did not incur the death penalty, for this case is like that of a man attacking another and murdering him. He came upon her in the open; though the engaged girl cried for help, there was no one to save her.

Your Deuteronomy Navigator

1. What communal responsibilities are laid out in the above passages? How do these inform a just society?

2. From what do you turn away?

3. Is it easier to turn away if you are turning from something or someone that is silent or dehumanized?

The first text assumes that human beings would naturally turn away or hide, according to more literal translations–from an animal that had gone astray or, if not from the animal itself, the responsibility that the care and safe return of that animal implies. It is natural, the text assumes, to want to shy away from an extra burden or hassle, and therefore, if we are to create a just society, we must be cautioned against following our own nature in this instance.

Taken at face value, the second text seems not to pertain to societal but rather individual responsibility–that of the woman or man engaged in adultery. It asserts that a betrothed woman who is raped in the city should be put to death as she did not cry for help and thereby was complicit in an adulterous act. The elliptical message contained in the text is that human beings respond to the cries of other human beings; she must not have cried out, because if she had, someone would have come to her aid.

Whereas the first text assumes that the people would not naturally go out of their way to help their fellow man (through care of his property) and must be commanded to do so, the second text assumes just the opposite, that help was not requested as, if it had been, it would have been provided.

Three 20th-Century Stories

New highway signs are being posted across the country raising awareness of a new cell phone number to call in case of emergency. A glut of cell phones and well-meaning passers-by have wreaked havoc on local emergency phone systems as travelers in car after car call to report accidents.

Almost every day in recent memory we hear stories of those who walked toward a bomb scene instead of away. Not able to ignore what was too horrific to imagine, they cared for loved ones and strangers in equal measure.

Nearly 40 years ago, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in the courtyard of a Queens apartment building. No fewer than 38 witnesses reported later that, though they heard her screams, they hadn’t called for help because they thought that someone else surely had or because they didn’t want to get involved.

Phil Ochs wrote the following lyrics about the incident:

Oh look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed.

They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed.

Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain.

But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game.

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.

The “small circle of friends” is our society. As we move toward the beginning of the New Year may we have the strength and courage to do our part to ensure that it is just and moral.

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.


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