Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Shabbos: The Transgressions of the Entire World

There's an interesting evolution from small infractions to global catastrophes. The Mishnah on 54a begins to catalog all the situations in which an animal is not allowed in the public domain on Shabbos. On 54b, the Mishnah concludes: "The cow of R'Elazar ben Azaryah used to go out with a strap between her horns against the will of the Sages." The Gemara explains: "It was not his cow, but that of a female neighbor of his; however, because he did not protest against her, it was called his cow." This prompts the Gemara to cite the following series of escalating admonitions:
Whoever has the ability to protest against the members of his household but does not protest is punished for the transgressions of the members of his household. Similarly, one who can protest against the people of his town but does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his town. Further, one who can protest against the entire world but does not protest is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.
This last trope especially appeals to my sense of global consciousness, and I initially read it on the day that the New York Times reported that Italy was charging several CIA agents in the kidnapping of a suspected terrorist. And I cheered. Italy, I thought, has interrupted the transgressions. Bravo!

Sadly, our Gemara is more narrowly interpreted in ArtScroll, where Rashi reads the entire world as meaning no more than the entire Jewish nation and suggests that "the Gemara refers to someone like the king . . . who has the power to protest because the people fear and obey him." But let us consider that Rashi, in his wildest imaginings, could not have conjured up the United States of America, or the freedom that every citizen of a first world country posesses. Every man a king . . .

3 Comments:

Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Rashi's commentary on the Gemara is supercondensed and terse, using the minimum number of words to guide the student to the answer. So when Rashi goes on and on, you have to see the moon when he shows it to you, not just his pointing finger.

Rashi makes it clear that the obligation to protest injustice (obligation to the point where you become as culpable as the malfactor if you don't) only applies to someone who has the power to actually make a difference. If you have no power, while you are still obligated to protest injustice, you are not as culpable as the actual malfactor if you fail to do so. In the 10th Century, Jews didn't have much power to make the goyish world behave, hence. Today, when each of us can make a difference, however small, we may be somewhat culpable for not acting according to this interpretation. The Gemara itself says plainly: the entire world. Rashi thinks you have an obligation to oppose injustice, but doesn't think you're culpable if you're powerless.

9:05 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

I agree completely.

9:05 PM  
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