Last July, five teenagers in Florida taunted a 31 year old man named Jamel Dunn, who was drowning in a pond near his family’s home. Instead of offering some sort of aid, they laughed as they told him that he was going to die and that they wouldn’t help. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, they filmed his death on their phones and then posted the video on YouTube. Unfortunately, there is a final detail that is even worse: the state attorney’s office announced last month that this group will not be criminally prosecuted because there is no Florida law that requires a person to provide emergency assistance to a person who is dying.
Besides feeling distraught that there is no system in place to punish the despicable people who would perpetrate such a crime, many questions come to my mind. How could this handful of teens have been raised to have such a callous disregard for the sanctity of human life? How did their parents not give over the idea of how crucial it is to help someone in need? How could they have taken pleasure in someone else’s pain?
Unlike Florida, we have such a law on our books. It’s called “al taamod al dam reyecha,” (don’t stand idly by your neighbor’s blood), and it’s one of the 613 Torah commandments. This commandant which includes helping a person who is in the midst of danger and stopping a perpetrator from acting again, are core principles of being an observant Jew. Giving money to the poor, helping the widow and the orphan – the underdogs of society – noticing the stranger and loving him, because we once were strangers in a strange land, these are the foundations of our people.
That’s not to say that the laws between man and God are not important too. Of course they are. But when the Sage Hillel summed up Judaism on one foot to a would-be convert, he explained “What is hurtful to you, don’t do to your fellow. The rest is commentary.” And when the mussar founder, Rav Yisrael Salanter summed up spirituality, he said, “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.”
Now I’m proud to say that the Orthodox Jews I’ve always associated myself with are big believers in these ideas. Their Judaism is more than just the length of their skirt and the level of their kashrus. They feel morally bound to be good and do good. In fact, unlike with the bystander effect (a group of people witnessing a dangerous moment, but no one acting to help because they assume everyone else will), a friend who was studying at Stern College (the Orthodox all girls school of Yeshiva University) told me how one day there was an accident outside one of the dorm rooms and the police were flooded with calls from the dorm because so many of the students had seen it and taken the Torah obligation of not standing idly by their neighbor’s blood quite seriously.
But unfortunately, not everyone who was raised Orthodox experiences the community this way. A formerly religious (OTD) woman I just spoke to told me that while she knew many nice people growing up, she believes that most of them would not have outed an abuser. The community pressure to not do so was too great. She was shocked to hear my experience was otherwise. And after my article last week about cover ups, a man contacted me in frustration. He had warned leaders in his community about abuse that he had seen taking place, but they didn’t want to have non-Jewish involvement in the matter. He told them the case was life and death, but the matter didn’t seem like life and death to them. Shortly after he brought this matter to their attention, the individual he had known was in trouble died due to the abuse.
We look at the story of the boys in Florida with revulsion and disgust. But are any of us sitting back and letting someone we know continue to encounter abuse? Are we acting quickly enough and diligently enough to stop the bad people we are aware of from hurting again? While I hope that I am right (and this OTD woman is wrong) that more people in our community are good would not hesitate to do what’s right, we still have cover ups. We still have people who are afraid to report an abuser they know about. The #metoo movement has shown us that lots of people are. But helping the weak and pursuing justice are at the foundation of our texts and should be a given when it comes to how observant Jews act. As this horrific case in Florida should make crystal clear – sometimes inaction can be murder.