Few are guilty, but all are responsible
Here in Alabama, we're just a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur and I decided to read some essays by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel - one of the greatest rabbis of the modern era and an exemplary voice for peace, justice, and tolerance.
Reading his statements about American involvement in Vietnam, I am chilled at the parallels and his condemnation of those who stand quietly by and "bear graciously other people's suffering."
I knew I had a lot to atone for before, but now, Rabbi Heschel has illuminated just how corrupt and vicious our society has become - and how many of us really "good people" aren't doing enough to stop it.
I have to let Rabbi Heschel speak for himself (he's far more eloquent than I am!), so there are a lot of quotes. I have a copy of the book "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity" which is a collection of his speeches & essays edited by his daughter Susannah Heschel. I'm quoting from two separate works reprinted in that book. They aren't available online in the original sources, but I'll provide the sources at the end of the diary.
From "Required: A Moral Ombudsman"
"A military court has declared Captain Calley guilty of manslaughter and for a few days the nation was in a state of dismay.
The question which agonized many people was: Who else is guilty?
To whitewash our deeds simply by maintaining our innocence is to defy God, who hears the cry of the guiltless killed in Vietnam.
Of the many problems involved, religious leaders face a special problem. How were such crimes possible?
Ten or twenty years ago no one would have believed that American boys could have acted in such a way.
I was a little kid during Vietnam, but I understand this outrage. When the photos from Gitmo came out, I couldn't believe that American soldiers would ever do something like that. Holy cow, guys (and gals)!! We're AMERICANS! We're the good guys!
At this hour, a major lesson implied in the teaching of the ancient prophets of Israel assumed renewed validity: Few are guilty, but all are responsible
Responsibility is the capability of being called up on to answer, or to make amends, to someone for something, without necessarily being directly connected with or involved in a criminal act.
Tomorrow, I have to atone for the sin of not being loud enough, not persuasive enough, not committed enough to stop Bush & company's assault on the Constitution and the world community. Some are guilty, but all are responsible.
If we remain silent in the face of this challenge, greater atrocities will take place in the days to come.
Here's where I got the chills. We were warned. Not just by Rabbi Heschel, but by other moral voices. Even now, people defend our involvement in Vietnam and efforts to prop up other dictators around the world. Collectively, we just never learn the lessons of history.
This is from "A Prayer For Peace." It reads like something from our High Holiday's prayer book where we confess our personal and community sins:
Most of us prefer to disregard the dreadful deeds we do over there. The atrocities committed in our name are too horrible to be credible. It is beyond our power to react vividly to the ongoing nightmare, day after day, night after night. so we bear graciously other people's suffering.
Oh Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost the capacity of outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. SOME ARE GUILTY, ALL ARE RESPONSIBLE
Ok, so it's almost Yom Kippur and I'm "supposed" to be feeling guilty anyway, but I've always been a firm believer that a book, essay, or even a quick conversation with a stranger sometimes happens just when you're at a place where you need to read or hear a certain message.
So I'm dedicating myself in the new year to do more. More than just read Daily Kos & post, more than send checks to political candidates, more than just the easy stuff.
Thank you, Rabbi Heschel, I'm accepting my responsibility - as I hope we all will.
NOTE: I certainly don't mean to imply that we're a bunch of slackers on this issue, but I know that personally it's easier to feel outrage than act on outrage. Rabbi Heschel's writings gave me a good kick in the pants. Maybe others will be similarly galvanized.
"Required: A Moral Ombudsman," United Synagogue Review, vol. 24, no 3 (Fall, 1971) pp. 4, 5, 28
A Prayer for Peace," Jewish Heritage, vol. 13 no. 3 (Fall, 1971, pp. 29, 30, 35