Joshua Hammerman
Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

American (Not) Idle: Bystanders in a Digital Age

Over the coming days, as a Minneapolis jury deliberates in the most charged racial justice case since OJ Simpson, Jews around the world will read in the Torah (Lev. 19:16) the commandment not to stand idly by the blood our neighbor.

There is no question that the sources stand on the side of active intervention rather than passivity. As the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 73a), “Whence do we know that if a person sees his neighbor drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him? From the verse, ‘Thou shalt not stand by the blood of thy neighbor.’”

But recent events are demonstrating that idleness is no longer an option, now that most onlookers carry in their pockets small, hand-held instant-justice machines that can make star witnesses out of nine-year-olds.  When a crime happens and you are there, either your cellphone camera is on or someone else’s has you in the frame. Either way, you will be found – and you will be involved.

What does it mean to be a bystander in a digital age?

We’ve been asking that question a lot lately. The riveting testimony of the trial for the murder of George Floyd has been marked by emotion, especially from the mouths of the youngest bystanders.

Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the viral video of Floyd’s arrest, said during her cross-examination that there have been nights when she has stayed up and apologized to Floyd for not doing more to save his life.

“(Floyd) looked like he was fighting to breathe,” said another teen witness, Alyssa Nicole Funari, 18, who was outside Cup Foods during the arrest.  “It was difficult because I felt like there really wasn’t anything I could do as a bystander,” Funari said. “The highest power was there and I felt like I was failing — like, failing to do anything.”

“Technically I could have done something; but I couldn’t do, physically, what I wanted to do,” Funari said, because police were ordering bystanders to stay back. Again and again, we heard the voices of the bystanders, like off duty firefighter who wanted to give CPR. They’re now stepping up to take responsibility for their inaction. But was it inaction?

At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen bystanders fail to respond correctly to recent hate crimes directed against people of Asian descent.  They did respond – poorly – and their response also thrust them to the center of the story.  Two New York City apartment building workers were fired for failing to help a 65 year old Asian American woman as she was being violently attacked on the sidewalk outside. As she was being physically and verbally attacked, cameras show these workers not only failing to intervene but then then closing the door on the woman.

In Orange County, CA., an Olympic hopeful was in a park training for the summer games when a man targeted her in an incident that she captured on video. She became, in effect, her own corroborating witness, victim and bystander all in one.

Research shows that most people are more than willing to intervene and help someone.

A whole branch of psychology has grown from this question, based on the famous 1964 Queens stabbing attack on Kitty Genovese that was ostensibly witnessed by 38 passive onlookers who did nothing to stop it. It later was shown that the numbers were inflated, and that in fact New Yorkers did not deserve the reputation for apathy that has been given them.

But recent events force us to ask ourselves, if we were outside of that Manhattan apartment building or Cup Foods in Minneapolis, what would we have done? And how has digital technology changed the equation since 1964?

Or since biblical times. When the young Moses went out and saw his fellow Israelite being beaten, as he was about to strike the taskmaster the text says “he turned this way and that…” Perhaps he saw no potential witnesses and figured it was okay to strike. Or perhaps he saw lots of people around, but they all looked haggard and weary – like slaves – and he calculated that no one would have the strength to testify against him. Moses understood that moral paralysis is the mark of enslavement; the people had been cowed into complicity – to idleness – indifferent to the plight of their fellow and unlikely to get involved.  So Moses got involved.

In Leviticus 9:22, an older Moses is once again a bystander as Aaron blessed the people.  But then, curiously, in the very next verse, Moses joins Aaron in a blessing do-over, and this time “the glory of God appeared to the entire people.”

According to the commentator Rashi, Aaron’s initial blessing was a misfire. And Aaron, afraid he was not in God’s good graces, appealed to Moses, who immediately leapt once again and joined his brother in a renewed appeal to God, who this time responded with an appearance.

The Baal Shem Tov takes from this the lesson that we are bystanders for a reason; not to stand in judgment — and Moses did not — but to share the burden. From that perspective of humility, Moses did not judge Aaron. He simply seized the moment when his moment arrived, and he ran to assist.

Those people in Minneapolis waited for their moment, having no idea that their moment to act would be delayed for nearly a year. That’s a lot of bystanding, but not a minute of idleness. They may not have been able to save George Floyd, but through their testimony, they may save the integrity of the American justice system. These heroic bystanders witnesses in Minnesota heard the clarion call of Elie Wiesel: “Don’t stand idly by if you witness injustice. You must intervene. You must interfere.”

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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