top of page


Who is a Guilty Bystander?

In this week's Parsha, VaYishlach, we read the terrible story of Dina, the daughter of Jacob. We probably all know of the 12 sons of Jacob from whom arose the 12 tribes of Israel. The other child, the less spoken of, is the only daughter among all the sons. In this section, Jacob returns to the Land of Israel from Padan-Aram, where he has spent the last twenty-plus years. Jacob and his family arrived in the Shechem area, ruled by a man named Hamor, and purchased a piece of land from Hamor where they could establish a home. After settling in, Dina ventures out to meet the other girls in the area. As she is walking around, Hamor's son Shechem sees her. Dina was very beautiful, and Shechem did the unthinkable. He abducted her and raped her. When Jacob heard about the rape, he was upset but held his peace until his sons came in from the field. By now, however, Shechem said he was in love with Dina and wanted to marry her, but Dina's brothers were furious. They said that Shechem had defiled their sister but agreed to allow the marriage on condition that all the men of the city become circumcised. So all the men were circumcised, Shechem could marry Dina, and Jacob and his family could live amongst them.

After all the men were circumcised, on the third day, they were incapacitated because of the pain. Two of Jacobs' sons, Shimon and Levi, entered the city, killed all the men, and took Dina out of the house of Shechem. Jacob was furious at their actions, but the brothers said: "Should one deal with our sister as a harlot?" Gen. 34:31

It is a very violent and troubling story, but it presents a complicated question that speaks to us still today. Jacob criticized and condemned Shimon and Levi for what they did, but Shimon and Levi justified their actions by claiming to avenge the disgrace of their sister. Jacob held his peace, but he cursed Shimon and Levi on his deathbed. The conflict was raised in the Middle Ages by two of our greatest sages, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) and Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides). Maimonides argued that the Seven Noachite Laws require all people to establish courts of justice to enforce the Noachite laws, and what Shechem did was a violation of one of those laws. Importantly, Maimonides argued Shechem was the men's leader. Because the men of the city saw that Shechem had raped Dina and knew about it but did not punish him for his actions, they were held responsible and punished as well (Melachi U'Milchamot 9:14). On the other hand, Nachmanides disagreed with Maimonides. He said that only Shechem was liable to be punished. He rejected the idea of collective responsibility, but acknowledged moral guilt by not preventing the crime.

The conflict is still unresolved. Maimonides claimed that we are all collectively responsible not only for our own conduct but also for the conduct of those around us and our leaders. Maimonides is saying that if I see an immoral act and fail to stop it, or at the very least do not try to stop it, I share in the guilt of that action. The Talmud says: "Whoever can forbid his household from committing a sin and does not, is seized for the sins of his household. If he can forbid his fellow citizens (and does not), then he is seized for the sins of his fellow citizens. And if for the whole world… he is seized for the sins of the whole world" (Shabbat 54b). You could say that this is the guilt of the bystander.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks acknowledged the need for nuance in this conflict. "There is a difference," he said, "between a perpetrator and a bystander. It's one thing to commit a crime, another to witness a crime and fail to prevent it." While the perpetrator of a crime is legally guilty and punishable by law, the bystander is morally guilty but not punishable by law. The morally guilty one punishes themselves.

Around the world, humans are violating the Ocean in countless ways. They are pillaging and polluting every body of water on the planet and slaughtering the living souls that inhabit it, so they can feed themselves and their house pets. I am intentionally using the 3rd person plural pronouns because I don't count myself amongst those who are perpetrating these actions. However, I know what's happening and am not stopping it. So, according to Maimonides, I am as guilty as those who commit these "crimes" against the planet because I know it's taking place, and I am not stopping it. In my defense, however, I would argue that the problem is too big for me to solve alone. The only ones who can control the issues or even make a dent in them are world "leaders" and corporate leaders, even though I am not confident they will. On the other hand, I know it's happening but not stopping it which, according to Nachmanides, would make me a guilty bystander. Is there something in between the arguments of Maimonides and Nachmanides?

I know what is happening, but I am not just watching and doing nothing. So, I do not consider myself a guilty bystander. Instead, I make an effort by making conscious choices in my daily life that I believe have a positive impact on water and the aquatic environment.

I do not use plastic cutlery… EVER.

I do not purchase single-use plastic bottles… EVER.

I do not eat fish or any animals from the water… EVER.

I do not use sunscreen that is not coral-safe… EVER.

I DO pick up litter when I go for walks in my neighborhood.

I DO participate in Dives Against Debris.

I DO take part in beach cleanups.

And I also tell anyone and everyone who will listen about what humanity is doing to the Ocean and how, as Jews, we have an obligation to be protectors and stewards of God's creation.

So, my actions alone will not change the course of the degradation of the Ocean. However, I believe that if each one of us made conscious choices every day not to support the industries and businesses that profit from the exploitation and destruction of the marine environment, then collectively, we can make a difference. One small string can break under pressure, but a million strings bound together (for a common cause) can perform great feats. So please, I hope you will evaluate the choices you make in your life that impact the Ocean and make some positive changes. If we all resolve to make conscious choices together, I believe we can Repair the Sea.

Question: Is our influence limited solely to our role as consumers? What else can we do to further environmental recovery, as both individuals and a community? Please share your thoughts below.

bottom of page