Thursday, October 30, 2014

Collective responsibility


In Joshua 7, the Jewish nation suffers military defeat, and it is blamed on the sin of an individual, Achan. Some commentators explain that collective responsibility is a natural function of the Jewish nation. For example:

"All Israel are bound together as one body, such that each individual will relate to the community as a limb of the body relates to the body. Just as illness or destruction of one limb causes illness or a defect in the entire body, so, too, when Achan took from the spoils it was considered as though the entire nation had trespassed..."
(Commentary of Malbim to Yehoshua 7:1)

"It is possible, without any impropriety, for chance to cause children to suffer punishment for parental sin; this will not involve impropriety at all. For example: If a person were to sin against the government and they would punish him justly, such that he would lose his wealth, this wwould cause punishment for his children, who would be paupers and would not inherit anything that they had been due to receive from their father's assets."
(Commentary of Ralbag to Yehoshua 7:1)

Have a great day,


  1. I heard it suggested in a YUTorah shiur recently (grin) that this could be understood either as a function of the Jewish People as a corporate entity being subject to some decreee (my phrasing) or because those who aren't guilty of the sin itself, are guilty to the extent that they could have spoken up. (Was there a third possibility?)

    I'm not sure the two differ. It's the common membership in the Jewish People (or in humanity, in other contexts) that creates the obligation to correct "others".

  2. Hi R' Micha,

    Thanks for listening! To me, the difference between the two ideas expressed in that shiur is that the former says nothing about any sort of obligation or guilt. Even in an imaginary scenario in which one did everything humanly possible to prevent/right the wrong, one would still be hurt, simply because one is part of a group that suffers.

  3. Kind of like the notion that once the mal'akh hamaves was let loose in Mitzrayim, it would take effort to prevent him from reaching a home? A more random notion of collective punishment, as the collective might be accidental; that the people are together at that moment rather than bound into a community.

    I am not comfortable with the notion your shiur proposed. Li nir'eh that the author could have written an entirely different book, the Wife of Job, in which everything that happened to the family was appropriate for her, and a book the Eldest of Job, etc...

    This is an idea I got from RYBS's explanation for the value of a communal Mi sheBeirakh. A human court could punish the innocent even when sending a guilty person to jail: his wife loses his help and emotional support, his parents and children are embarassed, his boss needs to find a replacement, effects rippling outward. RYBS said that this is not true of the heavenly court, which makes sure that the impact on each person, even someone who might read about it in the newspaper, is exactly fitting for that person. (Personal sidebar: reward, punishment, a challenge to overcome for growth's sake, whatever "fitting" might mean. RYBS wasn't clear to me on that detail.) And so, we make a Mi sheBeirakh because it brings more people's lives into the equation, making it less likely for things to become more tragic.

    But that presumes one side of the dialectic he describes in the beginning of "Community", the dialectic between the idea that the service of the community is a person's highest calling and the idea that a community exists to serve its members. Which is primary, the group, or the individual?

    The above description of Mi sheBeirakh presumes it's the individual.

    But I would suggest, just because it seems "most fair" to me (which is admittedly not a very compelling reason) that Divine Justice even when analyzed from the community-primary side of the dialectic still can't violate justice when seen from the individual. Just as each individual's life must make sense from their own perspective.

  4. R' Micha-
    I would disagree with the idea of "random community". As Sanhedrin 43-44 describes it, and as the rishonim (like the ones excerpted here) describe it, community is a real, discrete entity, defined by a particular collective character and not random association.

    1. Do you have a better way of describing "a time when the angel of death is released" in just terms?

      If a community is defined by collective character, then aren't you judging the individuals for their contribution to that collection? And in which case, we're back to asking about the fate of the person who didn't protest because he couldn't.

      In either case, I am more curious to hear your thoughts on my closing point:

      Say we expect Hashem to coordinate the fate of each person to be what is most fitting for that person, so that every life touched by an event is touched in the right way. We needn't expect that, and perhaps your response is that one would have to let go of that belief to describe collective punishment.

      But it's a common enough belief among 21st cent hashkafos, and probably has been ever since the Besh"t and Gra posited the idea that everything is subject to individualized Divine Providence (hashgachah peratis), but would be a consequence of the position of the rishonim who grant it of all human beings. (As opposed to, say, the Rambam, who says it must be earned.)

      But if we do say that each fate is coordinated, wouldn't that include the coordination of the national fate and those of the individuals in that nation who are personally subject to that event?

  5. R' Micha-
    Perhaps those who argue for individualized Divine Providence would need to incorporate the communal aspect of the individual's existence into the calculation of that individual's most fitting fate?

    1. Well yes, that too... The idea I was expressing (pace Ralbag) was that the event as each person or group experienced it had to be fitted to what belonged in their lives. E.g. Moshe didn't enter EY (questions about 38 years in Qadeish Barneia aside) because he hit the rock. (Bamidbar 27:13-14) And yet MRAH also tells the people that they didn't merit to be led into EY by him because of the meraglim. (Devarim 1:37)

      Butif we're talking about his membership in the community as part of what needs to shape his individual fate, we're back to blaming him for not stopping them, or curing him of the effects of their culture. If we're not talking about the community's roshem on the individual's soul, why would that soul's path from real to ideal be any different than someone who isn't in that community? And so, why, looking at the soul as an individual, would Hashem treat it any differently?