You cannot Source Out Moral Responsibility

Complex things require two kinds of people: experts to do them and ordinary people to watch over what the experts do. That’s the rabbinic lesson from this week’s Torah portion. “Watch over” the sacrifices, our text says – implying not just that expert priests and Levites do them, but also that ordinary Israelites must “stand over them” while they are going on. “From this,” Rashi summarizes, “we learn to establish ma’amadot.”

The word, ma’amadot (singular, ma’amad), from the root amad, meaning “to stand,” designated representative groups of Israelites from all over the country who took turns traveling to Jerusalem to “stand over” the sacrifices that the priests and Levites performed. As the Talmud describes the situation, all of Israel was divided into districts. The yearly sacrificial calendar was then allocated equally among the districts. When a district’s turn to sacrifice arrived, it sent a delegation of priests and Levites to the Temple to make the offerings. In addition, a ma’amad (a representative group of laypeople, regular “Israelites”) accompanied them to observe what they did.

What exactly did the Israelites add to the occasion just by watching? They hardly had the sacrificial expertise to correct anything going wrong; and they watched from an observation point well beyond the sacrificial area itself. They simply watched.

But that’s precisely what they added: watching. They watched over what was, after all, activity on their behalf.

That’s still a far cry from fully representative democracy, but give the Rabbis credit for getting the principle right: what represents the people requires oversight by the people. Experts perform the task, but the people retain ownership of, and responsibility for, it.

By “the people,” moreover, they meant “all the people.” Only a tiny fraction of the population had the time and money necessary to travel to Jerusalem, so another ma’amad was convened back home at precisely the time that the sacrifices were occurring in the Temple. Tradition associates that gathering with reciting the Amidah – our prayer that the Rabbis believed to be a substitute for the sacrifices. As sacrifice required an expert priest, so the Amidah required an expert prayer leader – someone known expressly as a sh’liach tzibbur (“representative of the people”). He was to be removed if he failed in the task, or even if he had a characterological flaw that made him unfit to represent the people before God.

Some sixteen centuries later, European philosophers developed “social contract theory” to justify conditions under which even kings might be removed, if they did not properly represent the people. Philosopher John Locke affirmed our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness,” and the rest is history.

The idea, however, goes back to the Rabbis’ reading of this Torah portion. Leadership of the body politic requires experts, but even experts are answerable for their expertise and character. Failing either, we, the people, remove them.

We might remember that lesson as we prepare for next year’s primaries. We should demand precisely those two qualities of anyone who seeks to represent us – expertise and character.

The most important lesson, however, is that, ultimately, we, the people, are responsible for everything our leaders do. If our people suffer poverty (as they do) or the rampant and racist slaughter of innocents (think “Charleston,” for example); if our prisons are inhumane (as they are) or if we practice, or have practiced, torture (as we have and probably still do); then we, the people, are responsible for not watching over the policies enacted or permitted in our name.

One obvious objection is that the sacrificing priests and the leaders of prayer were not just exercising authority in the body politic; they were representing us to God. But that won’t do. From a Jewish perspective, what we do as a body politic does represent us to God. And God’s message this week is that you cannot source out moral responsibility.

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One response to “You cannot Source Out Moral Responsibility

  1. Lowell Williams

    Rabbi Hoffman’s very valuable commentary reminds us of our moral responsibility for the acts of our leaders, and this reminder comes at a crucial and difficult time. I would add two ideas to the debate: one is that we are responsible for what our leaders do in our names and we are also responsible for non-leaders who act in our names, such as police and soldiers. Secondly, the assertion of our moral leadership over our agents has seldom been harder as an avalanche of money from special interest groups obscures facts and clouds issues in the political forum.
    We should not turn our faces away from the “blue on black” violence that characterizes many of our cities. Those men and women wearing blue uniforms do so in our names, and we should not tolerate two-tier justice in the name of safe streets. Repression on the streets and the imprisonment of vast numbers of people is something we must stop, and the people doing that are acting in our names.
    The Supreme Court has recently handed the liberal and progressive community some significant victories, and they are to be praised for those decisions. The damage done to representative democracy by the ruling in Citizens United is very serious, and nothing less than a constitutional amendment is likely to stop the flood of money from corporations and special interests which undermines our ability to make political leaders responsive to our wishes and needs.
    As people who take social justice seriously, we should remember Rabbi Hoffman’s teaching that moral responsibility rests with each of us, and we need to act to address the political process and social injustice that is carried out in our name.
    Lowell Williams

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