By Gerard Leval
“Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha…” “For the sin that we have committed before You….” Just a few days from now, on Yom Kippur, in every synagogue throughout the world, with these words, Jews will be asking for forgiveness collectively for the sins that members of our community may have committed during the past year. These petitions for forgiveness will not be personal requests (personal repentance must be addressed by the sinner to the aggrieved party directly), but rather a collective appeal for forgiveness for the sins that may have been committed by any member of the Jewish community.
This Jewish sense of communal responsibility stands out rather dramatically this year — a year in which we have been witness to an ever-increasing number of shocking acts of brutality committed by groups and individuals acting in the name of Islam.
As the Western world, including the United States, has finally begun to react to the growing Islamist violence, it is appropriate to note the reaction of the Muslim world. That response provides an important insight into the Muslim community’s perception of the concept of responsibility and emphasizes an important contrast to the Jewish view of the critical importance of communal responsibility.
In recent months, we have, at long last, observed some open condemnation of the actions of ISIS being articulated by the leaders of Muslim nations. However, that condemnation has taken the form of assertions that the terrorists who are carrying out the horrific acts of violence are not real Muslims and that their conduct is unrelated to Islam.
Thus far, rare has been the Muslim leader, whether secular or religious, who has been willing to stand up and acknowledge that the evil being perpetrated throughout the Middle East (and in the West) has direct links to Islam.
This failure to express any sense of communal responsibility is especially troublesome in light of the great pride that Muslims take in the umma — the world-wide Muslim community. Among Muslims there is a strong impulse to impose that community’s world view on the entire human race. However, regrettably, the concept of the umma seems to stop at the threshold of acknowledging any connection between the umma’s religious foundation and any of the bad acts instigated by members of that umma.
In stark contrast, within the Jewish community, there is a powerful sense of communal responsibility. The bad act of any Jew is always a source of pain and regret to every Jew. When, some years ago, Baruch Goldstein perpetrated the heinous murder of Muslim worshipers in Hebron, expressions of regret and grief poured out of the Jewish community. There was a deep sense of shame that an observant Jew could have committed such an act. When Bernard Madoff’s misdeeds were disclosed, it is not an exaggeration to say that every Jew felt ashamed that one of ours could have organized such a scam and caused such harm to so many. Once again, there was an outpouring of expressions of regret, from both the leaders of our community and from Jews generally. More recently, acts of brutality perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians have caused waves of revulsion by Jews everywhere, accompanied by public declarations of regret.
It is obviously not easy to be a member of a large and diverse group scattered across many lands. But membership in a group and a shared identity carries with it both benefits and liabilities. To claim the benefits, but to disavow the liabilities, is simply disingenuous. Thus, for Muslims to repeatedly assert that theirs is a great and peaceful religion, but not to acknowledge that this same religion has spawned vile acts, is deeply disappointing. Expressions of regret and understanding for those who may have been victimized in the name of a dearly loved religion must be components of the moral responsibility of adherents to that religion.
It is not fashionable to accept communal responsibility for anything in our era. With individuality prized above all things, every person is deemed to be responsible only for his or her own actions — any collective responsibility is, by definition, considered unfair and prejudiced. But our rabbis knew better. They understood that every member of the Jewish community has to take care of his fellow Jews and must take some measure of responsibility for the act of his brethren.
Jews have the right to be proud of our Nobel laureates, of the great authors, artists, scientists, scholars and leaders who have emerged from our community. We also have to accept some responsibility for those who fall short of our communal standards or may from time to time commit evil acts.
Our Muslim neighbors could benefit from reading part of our Yom Kippur liturgy. Perhaps, then they might be better able to understand the need to express some amount of collective remorse for the frightful deeds of their brethren. And it might become possible to realistically hope that Islam can begin to heal itself and thereby start the process of bringing to an end the destructive violence gripping so much of the Muslim world.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Arent Fox LLP.