This is one of my favorite Talmudic teachings.I also appreciate you asking the question because it supposes a level of responsibility and commitment to one another than so often is forgotten in the contemporary life.
The Talmud’s teaching that we are all responsible for one another means that we are obligated to one another.Whether we are at home or traveling, each of us has experienced feeling a sense of connection to someone we just met because they are Jewish.We share a common history and a sacred purpose, regardless of affiliation, denomination or observance.And it is why we often feel a communal sense of shame or fear when someone in the Jewish community behaves in a way that does not reflect the best of Jewish values or morals.
But to be sure, we are not responsible for another’s actions.God gave to humans the ability to choose right from wrong and gave to the Jewish people a series of mitzvot to help guide us.Whether another person chooses to follow or not follow those laws is not our responsibility as a whole.Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh is instead about obligation to one another; it is an outward calling rather than an inward feeling.When we feel called to join with the community in worship, when we help another member of our community because we feel obligated to care or when we share in a Passover seder, we are living in to this teaching.
Like so many things in Jewish tradition, just as in a forest it is easy to lose sight of the individual trees it is easy to lose sight of the individual in the midst of the whole.Rather than focusing on the entirety of the Jewish people, I would encourage you to look first at the Jews you meet in person.What is your level of obligation to them and how can you deepen your connection to them?If we begin here, then the larger question of how we connect and live in to the obligation we have to Jews around the world will seem much more doable.
The simplest approach is that these statements are not "black and white". Yes, all of Israel are mutual guarantors for each other, but no, it is not 100% true for every case nor in every detail. Also, some are more responsible than others see below.
Israel is a Holy Unit - the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No other religion I know comprises a "Peoplehood". "Mamlechet Kohanim v'Goy Kadosh"
We have one common root. As the song quoting the Zohar states: "G-d, Israel, and the Torah are one"
As our sages proclaim "You are called Adam, Gentiles are NOT called Adam"
This has been used by Anti-semites as an attack on Jews as thinking that Gentiles are inferior. They are missing the point. As one of the great masters explains: "all of the world's people are children of Adam and Eve. Only Israel is called "Adam" because we are the only one's who are still ONE unit.". Meaning: Gentiles may be "children of Adam" but not one solitary unit Thus, a Jew fighting another Jew is likened to 2 leaves on the same tree fighting each other.
"Atah Echad". Our Shabbat afternoon liturgy emphasizes the Unity of G-d and the uniqueness of His people Israel.
It is also said in the Midrash that when we received the Torah, we were all "armed with swords" to keep each other in line with the commandments. While such an aggressive posture was acceptable for eyewitnesses to Sinaitic Revelation, much kinder and gentler means are used today. Nowadays we do "outreach" instead so Jews who don't proselytize to Gentiles, but we do Keiruv or "Inreach" to our own people
Perhaps if all Israel had 100% of its act together it could look differently. Now as it stands -
When one Jew suffers we all suffer
When one Jew is in danger we all rally to his/her defense
When one Jew is alienated we all feel the need to reconcile him/her back to our people.
When one Jew is murdered, we all take responsibility.
When manslaughter is committed, the death of the High Priest releases the murderer. He is deemed responsible somehow for the behavior of "his" people
When a murdered body is found and the assailant is unknown, the elders of the nearest town take responsibility via a ritual.
My colleague R Aharon Ziegler shared this Point with me from the late R JB Soloveichik. Re: Moshe's leadership. I'm sharing with his kind permission:
«Moshe said to Bnei Yisrael (Devarim 1:37) "Gam Bi Hit'anaf HaShem Big'lal'chem". Translation - "Also at me, HaShem was angry because of you".
In other words, because of you, I too will not enter the land. It was not because of what Moshe did or said. [That he was deprived of entering the Promised Land. Rather] A manhig [leader] is responsible for his people. If they sink, he goes down with them, he has failed in his mission. The captain goes down with the ship.
To a lesser extent, every Israelite, whether a leader or not, shares that kind of "captain-of-the-ship" responsibility.". That is how the Holy Temple was lost and same for the delay of the Arrival of the Moshiach.
We have a shared history and ancestry as well as a common destiny. When we embrace a convert that convert not only practices Judaism, he/she also joins our people. Thus we are united with all Jews past, present, and future. We are even responsible to perpetuate our traditions as a legacy to those not yet born. We are One in a unique way.
A quick contextualization: the phrase kol yisrael arayvim zeh la-zeh means, “all of the people Israel are responsible for one another.”It originates from the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) where it is discussing the potential chain reaction of sin that occurs from one to the other (see also Sanhedrin 27b).The two moral implications of the phrase are that 1) Jews must stop Jews when they are on the verge of sinning and 2) that Jews must care for the basic well-being and needs (food, housing, clothes) of other Jews.It is noteworthy, that many Jews – certainly including Conservative Jews – have expanded this moral dictum beyond the Jewish community to all of humanity (the version in Sanhedrin although referring to family, does not specify “Israel” and simply says “everyone”).
Pointing out the original Talmudic source, however, is important because it differs from the later rabbinic versions to conclude with zeh ba-zeh instead of zeh la-zeh.This doesn’t really change the general gist of the statement, but alters the translation to say, “all of the people of Israel are in it [i.e., “mixed up”] with each other.”
Being “mixed up with each other” can be understood in two ways. Rabbi and philosopher, Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) claimed that Jews are bound by two covenants: a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny.The covenant of fate is involuntary and it inescapably unites Jews through shared history and shared suffering, which are linked to shared responsibility toward other Jews.In contrast, the covenant of destiny is voluntary and it represents the individual commitment of each Jew (and ultimately the Jews as a whole) to aspire toward and maintain Jewish values and dreams.
Soloveitchik’s covenant of fate holds that Jews are inextricably bound together and responsible for each other, even our actions.This is true.Jews are linked by their past, as a nation that was brought from slavery to freedom; that experienced a destruction of a Temple and national center; that blossomed with creativity through Rabbinic literature and sagely wisdom; that endured excommunications, pogroms and a Holocaust; and that witnessed the birth a Jewish State and a strong and healthy American Jewish community.All Jews are united by this past whether Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, atheist, secular Israeli, Haredi, Zionist, black, white, or brown, just as all Jews are united by our collective actions toward building a Jewish future.
Today we sense the current tide of Jewish history primarily through the media. Most of us surely find ourselves rooting for Israel to succeed on news and cheering for Jewish celebrities, athletes, scientists, economists, and politicians.We are also unified by our disdain and embarrassment of the likes of Bernie Madoff and Jack Abramoff.Perhaps, with television and the Internet, we Jews are more inspired and burdened by each other around the world than ever before.
Soloveitchik’s second covenant, the covenant of destiny, however, leaves room for diversity and pluralism among Jews.Accordingly, we share mutual responsibility for the Jewish people and to represent Jewish ideals, yet we are simultaneously each individually responsible for doing it in our own way.
Elliot Dorff, a contemporary rabbi and philosopher, expands upon the idea of pluralism within Judaism, calling it an ethical theory of relativity.Dorff says three things: a) historically, we know that each community develops organically and, although united with other Jewish communities, aspects of ideology and practice will vary; b) we cannot ever know what is absolutely true in a different time and place from our own because we can only see things from our own vantage point, i.e., relativity.Therefore, given the simple fact that we aren’t “in their shoes”, we must be humble when judging others and in considering to what degree we take responsibility; and c) Judaism espouses a God that loves plurality and different ways of doing things.According to the Rabbinic sages, Dorff reminds us, God only reveals part of the truth, as the rest is for us to determine on our own through study and experience (Num. Rabbah 19:6).And, as Joseph Albo said, “If I knew Him [God], I would be He.”In other words, a plurality of approaches to living life – balanced by certain rules and limitations – demonstrates God’s divine grandeur, while helping us to confront ourselves as imperfect human beings rather than egotistical demigods.
Thus, we cannot entirely take responsibility for every Jew and every Jewish community – that is God’s job not ours.Or, at the very least, we should humbly caution ourselves before doing so.It seems to me that this relates to why on Yom Kippur we must ask God for forgiveness both as a whole people and each one of us as individuals.
As a concluding point, I would add that Jews are bound and responsible for each other through our learning and education.We have Torah, Rabbinic literature, the prayer book, Jewish traditions, and Hebrew language, each of which transcend time and place.Each has been the platform for a common moral and spiritual expression to millions of Jews and for thousands of years; the spiritual energy that our texts, traditions, and language have inspired has been transmitted from teacher to student and parent to child for generations until this moment.Consequently, it is truly the collective wisdom and consciousness from our ancestors until today that continues to be the source from which our responsibility is born.In this way, I suggest, kol yisrael arayvim zeh ba-zeh.
What is the idea behind “kol yisrael arayvim zeh lazeh?” Are we really responsible for each other’s actions? How can a nation spread out throughout the world truly bear responsibility for each other?
The concept kol yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh does not mean we are responsible for each other’s actions.Rather, it means we are all responsible for each other’s well-being.This means, on a personal level, if we see a Jew about to commit a sin, we are to step in and help them stay on the right path. If we see a Jew in trouble, we are responsible to help. On a public policy level, we are to step in when we see the Jewish community, here and around the world, in trouble.So Jews in America spoke up and acted out to help Jews in the Soviet Union; Israel acted to rescue endangered Jewish communities in Yemen and Ethiopia.And American Jews today speak out when they see Jews in trouble around the world or see Israel’s government acting in ways that might be detrimental to the long-term interest of the Jewish State.For more information, see:
“The Talmud (Shevuot 39a), in discussing the domino effect of sin, concludes with the Aramaic phrase, Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. This phrase is the basis of the notion of communal responsibility in Jewish law. If one Jew sees another Jew at the verge of sinning, he has an obligation to step in and help. Even more so, it implies an obligation on all Jews to ensure that other Jews have their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter taken care of. Simply by virtue of being a Jew one is responsible for the well-being of other Jews, and vice versa.”
Answered by: Rabbi Bonnie Margulis (Emerita)
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