Korach and Collective Responsibility

“And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, “God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?”   (Numbers 16:21)

The issue of Collective Punishment remains with us as a modern problem and it is no surprise that rabbinic tradition builds arguments to try to dissect and clarify the issues. Call up the question on a search engine and the chances are you will find emotive responses citing the biblical verses of the children paying for the sins of the father – for example Deut. 5:9 “You shall not bow down to nor worship other gods; for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..”. or maybe citing the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – though of course a closer look at such texts shows that they do not in fact suggest collective punishment, and one can equally find biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” Or Jeremiah 31:29-31 “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes–his own teeth will be set on edge” or Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is in fact a story AGAINST collective punishment – indeed Moses bargains God down from destroying them and destroying the righteous with the wicked, and only when it becomes clear that there are no righteous people at all, beyond Lot and his family (who are warned to leave before the destruction) is the fate of these cities sealed.

 There is no driver towards collective punishment in Judaism – rather the reverse is true in our texts as God is challenged on a number of occasions when it looks like divine punishment will include the innocent alongside the perpetrators – including the verse in our portion. There is no impetus  towards collective punishment but some rabbis – including Maimonides, make the case for collective responsibility, something that becomes enshrined in Jewish Law in the phrase “Col Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh” (B.Talmud Shevuot 39a) – All Jews are accountable each for the other. In other words, we have a responsibility to each other, and an obligation to make sure that we all behave properly in the world. If not, then we are guilty of passively colluding with behaviour that is immoral, that we leave unchallenged behaviour we know to be wrong. This is, in many ways, the origin of the periodic “Not in my name” protests to Government – we do not want to be passive, nor to have people believe that we accede to what is done by our elected leaders.

The Code of Hammurabi (c1700 BCE) was the first to bring in to a legal framework the requirement that the punishment should fit the crime, and the bible takes much of that moral world view – including the famous phrase of lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – treated as meaning there should be proportionate punishment rather than a collective retribution. The Talmud puts it rather more fully in tractate Shabbat 54b “Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his household; if he can prevent the people of his city, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his city; if the whole world, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of the whole world.”

 The rabbis who taught this are saying that we have a responsibility to each other, and that this responsibility is on a number of levels of propinquity and possibility. Failing to prevent a wrongdoing is not on the same level as actually committing the act oneself. Not stopping someone with whom we have a relationship is not the same as not stopping someone who is unknown to us and at a distance from us. The word “seized” which I have translated as “responsible” does not imply being something to be tried in a court of law, but is more about having a moral relationship to the action, something between ourselves and God rather than between ourselves and humankind.

 We share a Collective Responsibility – among family bonds or amongst the Jewish people, among fellow citizens under shared government, or as human beings who have stewardship of the world.  Jewish teaching is clear that we are not isolated from each other: To use the words of John Donne “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all:….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 The text of this parashah rings clearly as a bell for us: “And they fell on their faces and said, God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?” 16:21. Collective punishment is not acceptable in any circumstance, but collective responsibility is something for us all to take note of, and to do.


כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה


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