“Accountability is a Jewish Value”

As I read through this week’s Torah portion, Naso, I came across some powerful words:

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: 6 Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with Adonai, and that person realizes his guilt, 7 he shall confess the wrong that he has done. (Numbers 5:5-7)

And as I read it, I realized something upsetting.  There has been an inherent shift in American culture which has taken the emphasis away from what was once a staple of good leadership and character: accountability. 

People aren’t apologizing anymore; or, they’re apologizing for the wrong reasons; or instead of apologizing they’re using rhetoric that sounds like an apology but really isn’t.  I’ll give you a few examples:

It’s probable that most of you have heard of the back and forth happening on Twitter regarding the death of Lori Kaye Klausutis.  Nineteen years ago, Lori, who had an undiagnosed heart condition, fell and hit her desk at work, which unfortunately led to her death.  This week, President Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory, accusing then Representative Joe Scarborough, who was Lori’s boss at the time, of murdering her. He also called him a “psycho.”  In response, Tim Klausutis, Lori’s grieving widow, wrote a heartfelt note to Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, asking him to remove the Tweets as they violate Twitter’s terms of service.  In response, Twitter responded that the tweets do not violate the terms of service, and would therefore not remove them. He also added: 

We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family. We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.

It looks like an apology, because it contains the word “sorry,” but he is also saying that Twitter will not take action, nor will they prevent something like this from happening again.  Apologies without action are empty, and corporations like Twitter have been using this strategy for decades.  Where is the accountability?  Certainly not with President Trump, who has yet to apologize, nor is it with Twitter. So a grieving husband is forced to endure conspiracy theories surrounding his wife.  

Another example is that this past week, a white woman in Central Park, Amy Cooper, was walking her dog without a leash when a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), asked her to please keep her dog on the leash so as to respect the law and protect the wildlife.  In response, Amy Cooper picked up her phone and threatened Cooper, saying “I’m going to tell them there is an African American man threatening my life.” She then called 911 and did just that. Luckily, Christian Cooper was videoing the incident and it went viral.  In response to the viral publication of this video, Amy Cooper apologized  but gave excuses for her behavior, saying she was scared (though Cooper in now way, verbally or physically, tried to intimidate her). She also lamented that her life was being “destroyed” because of the bad press.  The apology came long after the incident and only after her reputation was at stake.  It is difficult to take apologies like that at face-value considering the timeline.  

I read this story and thousands of others of people hiding behind corporate policies, paper, lawyers, or empty rhetoric in relation to the words of our Torah.  According to our holy text, when we commit “wrong toward a fellow” meaning we hurt them in any way, it is described as “breaking faith with [God.]”  How powerful is this statement?  To commit a wrong against someone is to break faith with God, to cease being in a relationship with the divine.  Imagine if people held themselves to that standard.

So what is necessary when we see our fellow leaders, our neighbors, or our friends and families engaging in hurtful or disrespectful acts? What do we do when they break faith with God, when they engage in Lashon Harah (evil speech), and refuse to apologize for their actions, or refuse to change themselves?  Well, Judaism teaches us that what is needed in that situation is something called tochecha.  It is best translated as “rebuke.”  The idea comes from our Torah, Leviticus 19:17: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Rebuke your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”  So what does that mean?  Tochecha is that delicate art of giving honest rebuke, honest feedback, for the purpose of bettering relationships and bettering that person.  As our Midrash tells us: “A love without reproof is no love.” Resh Lakish said, “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.” In other words, proper relationships in this world cannot exist if we do not (sometimes strongly) correct one another’s behavior.  We cannot allow our fellows, our neighbors, to go on acting sinfully.  Judaism does not shrug off those who engage in “evil speech,” indeed, it equates the insulting or publicly embarrassing of another person to murder.  No exaggeration, they equate it with murder.  

Additionally, even the mystics, who are known for their open minds, speak clearly about the dangers of evil speech: as the Zohar states: “God will accept repentance for all sins except one: giving another man a bad name.”  Tochecha, therefore, must be equally as strong when evil is done and apologies are not made.  For healthy relationships to endure, for love to endure, rebuke must be made if apologies are not made.  As our Torah portion this week teaches, accountability, the admitting of our sins, is how we keep faith with God, how we keep together as a people.  Those who would negate accountability, who would not name their sins, who would attempt to talk themselves out of their own guilt, our rabbis would tell us that they have no share in the world to come.  

It is easy to see this at the corporate level, to lash out at Twitter or institutionalized racism. But what about at the individual human level?  I was recently the target of this kind of behavior. I was insulted publicly; I was laughed at; I felt dehumanized. I immediately knew, in that moment, why the rabbis equated lashon hara to murder.  To be insulted in a crowd is soul-crushing. But, as Judaism shows, it is so much more than that. It is the murder of one’s respect, one’s trust, one’s integrity. And without an apology, especially when there are public witnesses, those acts of evil speech are condoned. And when you condone them, you leave them to be understood as true. It serves to solidify the insults and to diminish a persons’ sense of worth, of value.  

It is why Tochecha is necessary. Elie Wiesel understood tochecha when he said those famous words “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”  We interfere not only for our sakes, not only for the sake of the oppressed, but also, as the Torah points out, for the oppressor. When the oppressor sins and does not confess their sins or come clean and apologize, they break faith with God. As a rabbi, as Jews who wish to see the world be left better than we found it, it is our job to make sure that all are acting in good faith with God. And when they don’t, we have a responsibility to follow the commandments of tochecha and rebuke our fellow.  

When a corporation allows itself to be a platform for lies, when a group of people hide behind institutionalized racism, when a person is insulted in the name of acquiescence, we cannot allow ourselves to remain neutral. Peace where there has been no reproof is no peace. It is up to each of us to not only act with righteousness, but to step in and correct others when they don’t. It isn’t meddling. It isn’t rocking the boat. It is an act of love; an act of holiness. And in Judaism, it is a commandment.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Dena E Langdon says:

    How do we avoid being judgmental? We are firm believers in accountability, so bravo for your post.


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