Who Shall Live? A theology of collective responsibility

Who Shall Live?
A theology of collective responsibility
by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

A couple of years ago, a prominent Israeli rabbi was quoted as saying, “Is it a wonder that soldiers who don’t observe the Torah, don’t pray every day and don’t put on tefilin [phylacteries, worn during prayer] every day are killed in war? It is no wonder.” He seemed to be saying that God killed Israeli soldiers—mostly 18 to 21 year-old kids—because they weren’t religious. Live a bad life in this world and be punished accordingly in this world. 

His comments sparked outrage among Israelis—not a few of them were parents of kids who had been killed in battle, some of them religious even. It’s since been suggested that the comments have been taken out of context and that this rabbi didn’t intend what it sounded like he intended. But his comments—whatever intended—most certainly touched a raw nerve. 

It’s the same raw nerve we feel touched in disaster after disaster, when a Greek chorus seems to come out of the woodwork to explain why, exactly, God “let” such a thing happen. The tsunami in Thailand, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti—after each horrible event, some prominent Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and/or Hindu figure will conjecture that the tragedy was a punishment for immorality, a warning from an angry Deity, a sign of the apocalypse, bad karma from a past life, or something of the sort.

Many Jews who are troubled by these sorts of claims are also troubled by a lot of what we find in our traditional prayerbook—or at least, a lot of what we seem to be finding at first blush. Take the Un’taneh Tokef, for example, the prayer that, in many ways, serves as the centerpiece of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy. It reads:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, / And on Yom Kippur it is sealed. / How many shall leave this world, how many shall be born, / Who shall live and who shall die, / Who in the fullness of years and who before, / Who by water and who by fire, / Who by sword and who by beast, / Who by famine and who by thirst, / Who by upheaval and who by plague, / Who by strangling and who by stoning, / Who will rest and who will wander, / Who will live in harmony and who will be harried, / Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, / Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, / Who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

And then, immediately after, it suggests: “But tshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedekah (acts of righteousness) can avert the severity of the decree.”

Can individual acts of piety save us from earthquakes, car accidents, or persecution? We know that lots of very good people suffer every day and that many people who do horrible things prosper. For many of us, the plain meaning of this prayer feels counterintuitive. 

Most Jews I know have been trained to regard this prayer as an individual exhortation to shift our individual fates. Individual liberty and the pursuit of individual happiness are principles on which America was founded, and, indeed, these ideas have given us many gifts: freedom to dissent, for example, a wide berth for creativity, and the possibility of forging lives other than the ones into which we were born. But relentless individualism has its limits.

In the early days of the Indian resistance to British rule, Gandhi would board the trains of colonial India and hold up his hand to its hardly well-off, hardly privileged, riders. He’d raise a finger and tell them that it represented the disenfranchisement and marginalization of members of the Untouchable caste, and the moral imperative to treat them as full members of society. He’d raise another finger—this, he would say, is our economic dependence on the British and the need to begin wearing only homespun clothes. A third finger would represent addiction to alcohol and opium, number four, the Hindu-Muslim conflict, and the fifth finger, the status of women. 

This was the hand, Gandhi told his passengers, with which they could together defeat the British. A meaningful victory could only come once India had faced all of the ways in which the country was weak, all of the ways in which the dignity of every human being was compromised. They would all be saved when—and only when—each individual transformed him or herself to become a member of a larger whole, when the personal spiritual work of every Indian bore fruit in the broader society. Liberation depended on just treatment for the marginalized, on the cessation of conflict between opposing groups. It was all interconnected, Gandhi understood. 

I wonder if we should regard the Un’taneh Tokef as a collective imperative. The full prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it’s written in the first person, it’s in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.

What if what was at stake weren’t about my individual repentance as it affects my individual fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate? 

Each of our culpabilities, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad are tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all people. For better or for worse, we’re all in this together, and it’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental, and social well-being. It’s upon each of us to not pass the theological buck to a deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will—the power to heal or to hurt, to recycle or to not even buy in the first place, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them, or to stand idly by and do nothing. 

Who shall live, and who shall die? What if the reason that a person gets cancer is not because he or she personally has done something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water, and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence? Who by fire, and who by water? Perhaps the unusual force and number of hurricanes and tsunamis in the last few years is not a sign that entire sections of the world are filled with sinners but a tragic by-product of global warming? Who by strangling, and who by stoning? Women today, all around the world, are still being stoned to death when there are rumors that they have been out unchaperoned or even raped, sometimes by the brothers who eventually take her life. Are these women guilty of insufficient prayer, or should we assign responsibility to everyone who perpetuates a culture in which this is considered acceptable? Who by sword, and who by wild beast? Are the war refugees who are, sometimes—still, today—ravaged by wild beasts personally responsible for their situation, their fate? Of course not.

Obviously, not everything that happens in this world is the fault of mere mortals. Nature has her part, and unfortunately, terrible tragedies happen every day that defy our ability to wrap up every “why?” in neat, tightly-ordered packages. 

Unfortunately, we only have so much control. The Un’taneh Tokef cries:

The human’s origin is dust and his end is dust, at the risk of his life he earns his bread, he is like a broken vessel of clay, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a drifting cloud, a fleeting breath, scattering dust, a transient dream…. None can conceive You, nor fathom Your mysteries.

I don’t know if we can change our individual decrees. But our work can impact the severity with which evil besets us all. This prayer is telling us that we have a tremendous amount of power, and the obligation to use that power.     

We need teshuvah—literally, “returning”—to face the reality of who we are and how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship both to God and other people, to see where we have been inert, choosing complacency and the easy path. We need tefillah (prayer) to align our wills with the divine will, to remember that we are on this Earth to serve, to give over of ourselves. We need tzedekah (charity, righteousness) to enact, in part, this service–by caring for others as we care for God.

The more we begin to tune into the divine, the deeper we get into returning, prayer, and righteousness. Gandhi is right. Our every action is not isolated and individual but is, rather, intertwined with the wellbeing of our culture as a whole. The more we understand this, the more we will begin to embrace that true transformation will only come when we are committed to bringing all the aspects of our sick culture back to health, uniting all of the fingers that help our arm do what is right. 

When we incline our hearts to God, trying to bring our actions into alignment with our greatest spiritual ideals, we find that every aspect of our lives is inextricably impacted. When we do this, it gets harder to walk past a homeless person and not look her in the eye, seeing that she is human and, perhaps, hungry. It gets harder not to realize that every purchase has a potentially global impact, maybe supporting a local artisan or a corporation that trades in sweatshop labor. It gets harder to read newspaper stories about war or capital punishment casually as though they weren’t happening to real people and causing real suffering. It gets harder to be oblivious to the fact that the person cleaning your office is a person and that the reason that she’s so tired might have something to do with you and with the ways labor and value are structured in our culture. It gets harder to forget that 28 million people in America are classified as “working poor” or that 46.6 million people in America go without heath insurance. It gets harder to forget that individuals can come together to change a community and that communities can come together to make change that’s even farther-reaching. 

The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches: “Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is considered liable for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is considered liable for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is considered liable for [the sins of] the whole world.” 

It’s not enough simply not to sin. We must take active steps in preventing others from causing harm, or else, their transgression becomes our own.

The task begins with tshuvah, tefillah and tzedekah. Where it ends, how far it extends, is up to us. §

Issue 06
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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She was named by Newsweek as one of ten “rabbis to watch” and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.