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What happens when good people do nothing?

What happens when good people are bystanders? This week Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., draws a parallel between the response of the rabbis in the famous story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, to the, unfortunately too common, bystander effect. This lesson is evident in tragedies of modern history, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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Shalom,

As we approach Tisha B’av, my question today is: what is the connection between Tisha B’av and the war going on now in Ukraine? On Tisha B’av, there is a custom to study a famous section of the Talmud — Gittin folios 55b-58a – which contains legends and stories about the Destruction of the Second Temple.

The first story in that section tells the story of a certain wealthy Jew who lived in Jerusalem, who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to a feast, but by mistake, the servant brings Bar Kamtza. When Bar Kamtza shows up and sits down at the meal, the host goes over to him and says “what are you doing here! Get out!” Bar Kamtza replies: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay for whatever I eat and drink”. The host says, “No, get out!” Bar Kamtza says: ” I’m willing to pay for half of this entire feast.” The host says, “No, get out!” “I’m willing to pay for the entire feast.” The host says “No! get out!”. Bar Kamtza says: “Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government.” In other words, because the host publicly insulted Bar Kamtza while the rabbis sat there and did nothing, Bar Kamtza went to the Roman Emperor and slandered the Jews and the end result was the siege on Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Second Temple.

The lesson of this tragic story can be summarized in a quote attributed to Edmund Burke in the 18th century: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

This idea was reiterated after the Holocaust by the anti-Nazi Lutheran Minister Martin Niemoller. It’s not exactly what he said, but it’s the gist of a speech he delivered in January 1946:

 

“First they came for the Communists,

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Communist.

 

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I did not speak out

because I was not a trade unionist.

 

Then they came for the Jews,

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew.

 

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.”

 

The final source I shall quote is from a speech that may sound familiar but, in a moment, we will discover that it’s not. It was delivered by the leader of an embattled country to an international body of nations. This is what that leader said:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of… aggression…

It is collective security. It is the very existence of [this body]…

In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. Have the signatures appended to a Treaty value only insofar as the signatory powers have a personal, direct and immediate interest involved?…

Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord, there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to [this body] to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.”

And finally, he said, “This is not a case of the impossibility of stopping an aggressor, but of the refusal to stop an aggressor.”

 

You might think that this is a quote from President Zelensky of Ukraine talking to the United Nations about the Russian invasion of his country –- but you would be wrong. It’s a quote from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia talking to the League of Nations in Geneva in June of 1936 after Italy invaded his country without provocation, and with the help of poison gas, managed to capture his country. He came to the League of Nations and he asked for their help — and they did absolutely nothing.

Thus, we see that there is a direct line from the story of Bar Kamtza in the tractate of Gittin about the Destruction of the Second Temple, which teaches us what happens when good men do nothing. This is what happened in Ethiopia in 1936. This is what happened during the Shoah from 1933 to 1945. And this is what could happen in Ukraine if the world does not continue to aid Ukraine.

When we see individuals being mistreated, we must speak up.

When we see entire ethnic groups and minorities being discriminated against, we must take action.

When we see peaceful countries being attacked for no reason, we must protest and force our governments to help the victims.

This is one of the important lessons of Tisha B’av.

Shavua tov from Schechter.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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