Jewish Responsibility

Where Are You?


With all the suffering in the world it is easy to give up hope that things can be another way. Yet we don’t abandon our ideals in the face of harsh realities. We are responsible for making a different choice. We are partners in the creation of a better world. Understanding and accepting this requires maturity, but unless we make this choice we are as incomplete as Adam was in the Garden of Eden when God asked him, Ayekah?[1] Where are you? God didn’t ask for His sake, but for Adam’s, because Adam didn’t know where, or who, he was. We are the inheritors of the Covenant between God and Israel, and every day we are challenged to accept the consequences of this inheritance. Every day we are supposed to ask ourselves, “Where are we?” Where are we creating the world we want for ourselves, for others and for those who will inherit it?

Jewish Responsibility

photo by Hirsute Ursus

Our Sages taught that we are responsible for others. To prove this, they commented on the phrase in Leviticus, “And they shall fall one upon another.”[2] The Rabbis said that people fall because our brothers fall, to teach us that we are all responsible for one another.[3] The French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas developed this thought and warned against the temptation to care only for ourselves. He said a person who is a fully human soul does not retreat into himself. Our humanity depends on being responsible for, and reaching out to, others.[4]
Responsibility to others is also a path to personal meaning. Reaching out allows us to reach within, uncovering our uniqueness while simultaneously teaching us that our lives are bound to one another. And when we are conscious of others and when we root our morality in our ability to care for them, we fulfill our covenantal responsibilities as a part of the Jewish people and define meaning in our existence.

Attaching personal meaning to the fulfillment of our responsibility to others might feel strange. Holding what we can do for others as a source for meaning is a choice based on values that are different from the natural state of humankind, but it is a loving choice. Instead of being eager to dominate and believing that our consciences are true measures of morality, Jews have to submit to teachings that require, most of all, humility.

“How much are we responsible for?” Judaism seldom speaks about this with a single voice but the question is a central concern. In the Talmud, Rav Papa said, “The Princes of the world have to answer to all charges,”[5] and Emmanuel Levinas taught that every conscious person has an “infinite responsibility” to others. Fortunately, both of these statements are just starting places to begin our work rather than impossible destinations that we cannot reach. But high standards are good. They call on us to demand more of ourselves. We need to consistently ask ourselves whether or not we are living just lives.

To respond to the question, “For how much are we responsible?” we turn to our texts. In the words of Levinas, they are the “Saying,” the guiding Word to which all our words (the “Said”) answer. When we offer a biblical verse, we do not do it as a proof text or to justify right action, but as an affirmation of our connection to a shared tradition and an experience.[6] You might say, “We do this because this is what we do.” We are not bound to God by blind faith, but by a covenantal tradition of thinking. We are not obliged to sacrifice critical thought to rabbinic authority. The wisdom that preceded us must be true to our time and to our understanding of what is right.

The accompanying texts support seven reasons why Jews have a special responsibility towards the enslaved. They consistently affirm a textual perspective we believe in. The essence of our thinking is a dedication to a loving God Who gives us our lives to strive to become fuller human beings. One of the ways we do this is by responding to the call of others. While there may be easier paths, this path makes conscience a priority. We invite you to join us.


[1] Genesis 3:9.

[2] Leviticus 26:37

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b.

[4] Levinas, Emmanuel. Humanisme de l’autre homme, p. 97; Collected Philosophical Papers 149

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a.

[6] Levinas, Emmanuel. Collected Philosophical Papers 148