Monday, November 26, 2012

Shabbat 54b: Judaism Isn't an Opiate of the Masses

"Opiate of the masses." That is what Karl Marx famously called religion. Religion leads to passivity because at least from what Marx could observe, people accept the way things happen as "G-d's will." "Why help out others when this what G-d wishes to be?" Judaism outright rejects that premise, and today's Daf Yomi portion, Shabbat 54 is a friendly reminder of that fact:

כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו

Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for hte sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world and fails to do so, he is is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.

At this point, this blog entry more about preliminary thoughts than anything else. First is the continuing dichotomy between individualism and communitarianism in Jewish thought, which is something with which I struggled during this past Yom Kippur. There is plenty that Judaism has to say about individual sin. However, Judaism goes beyond regulating individuals in a politically libertarian manner. What this Talmud portion is saying is that we are also responsible for those around us. We're meant to do mitzvot such as give tzedakah and perform acts of loving-kindness (גמילות חסדים).  Although the Talmudic sages do not cite any Biblical verses for this parable, my educated guess is that Leviticus 19:16, the verse about standing idly by the blood of your neighbor, would come into play.

For being written about two millennia ago, I am surprised as to how global the thinking was. The first thing is the hierarchy presented here: home, town, and then the world. Given the complexities of globalization, I would expect a more nuanced hierarchy, but the idea is to help those closest to you and expand your assistance from there. I am impressed that Chazal makes a call for helping on a global level.

I think the repetition of "if he is in a position" is important because it's a conditional clause. To what extent are you obligated to help in avoiding sin? Globalization is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can relay information faster than ever. On the other hand, we receive too much information, and thus become all too easily aware of the plethora of problems that plague this world. Does that give us an out? Nope! As Pirkei Avot 2:16 states, just because we are not meant to finish our task does not mean that we desist from it. We need to pick causes that are within in our sphere of influence, and if they are not within our sphere of influence, we try to bring it within that fold. It is difficult to choose causes and figure out how to best help out. I hope to find a way to prioritize it all and actualize. But I do know one thing: Judaism teaches us that life is not a spectator sport. We are meant to be active participants in the game called "life" until it's over.

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