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September 14, 2014 | 19th Elul 5774

Majority Rules (III)

Galilee Diary #567, March 7, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

... All of Israel are one soul, as in "...all the men of Israel, united as one man..." (Judges 20:11), so if one sins, all are responsible (guarantors) for each other.  What is this like?  Like when people are traveling in a boat and one of them takes out a drill and starts to drill under his seat; his companion says, "Fool, you are drilling under your own seat but the water will enter and we will all be lost."
-Otzar Hamidrashim Yelamdenu 225

The punch  line of the above story, "all Israel are responsible for each other," is often quoted to support our philanthropic and political obligation to help our fellow Jews.  Note, however, that that is not the original intention.  Rather, the point is that we are morally responsible for each other, i.e., we'll all get punished for each other's sins.  So I have an interest in preventing you from sinning, since I am responsible for your behavior, not just for my own.  In this interpretation the slogan is less popular – but it is the idea that drives the attempts of the Ultra-Orthodox to impose their view of halachah on the rest of us.  If all Israel are responsible one for the other, then my violation of, say, the halachah of Shabbat reflects on and affects all Jews, and my Ultra-Orthodox neighbor feels that it is his obligation to do whatever he can to prevent this harmful behavior on my part.  Not because he is wicked, or power-hungry, or hates Reform Jews, but because he feels a sense of responsibility for me and is concerned about my insistence on drilling a hole under my seat.  If only I would keep all the mitzvoth, we would be able to sail on safely to redemption.  So he will use all the methods at his disposal, including political manipulations and even force, to keep me from drilling that hole.

But what can you do, it seems that one man's drill is another's life preserver.  And when my Ultra-Orthodox neighbor insists that his son cannot serve in the army because it will corrupt his culture and keep him from the Torah study and mitzvot that have kept us afloat in history, he looks to me like someone who is drilling a hole under his seat that will take us all down.

Perhaps this same logic, by the way, is at play in Diaspora Jews' criticism of Israel's policies and/or actions: not because they are self-hating, or post-Zionist, but because when Israel is perceived to be "sinning" they are, willy-nilly, responsible: When we Israelis drill holes under our seats, Diaspora Jews get a sinking feeling.

The problem with this sense of people-wide responsibility is that it runs up against our modern commitment to pluralism and freedom and individual responsibility.  The term "Jewish Peoplehood" has taken on the positive aura, in Jewish discourse, of "motherhood and apple pie:" With or without a clear definition, it is in any case understood as something positive.  But if it really is to have content, then we have to come to terms with the above midrash: does "peoplehood" merely require us to care, in the abstract, about the welfare of our fellow Jews, and feel empathy for their suffering and pride in their Nobel prizes?  Or does it mean we are obligated to share our resources with them when they are in need?  Or does it mean that we are responsible for their moral failings, and they for ours, which obligates us not only to reprove them – but to wrest the drill out of their hands?

And what of the danger that in our struggle to grab that drill, we will capsize the boat?

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