Shmuly Yanklowitz

Bystanders, Levinas, & Our Role as Religious Citizens

The power of group conformity can lead us to absurd behavior where we do not help others or even ourselves!

In a 1967 study, male students at Columbia University were asked to fill out a survey. Some of the students were seated in rooms, alone, while others were seated in rooms together with two actors who, unbeknownst to them, were part of the experiment; their part was to avoid communicating with the student or acting on their own. While the subjects were filling out their surveys, a “crisis” was created and smoke began to pour into the room through a wall vent. Eventually the entire room was filled with a smoky haze. Three quarters of the lone students sitting went to alert someone to the smoke. Yet, shockingly, when there were three “students” together in one room, only 38 percent of the subjects reported the smoke, and only 4 percent did so within four minutes of noticing the smoke.

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In a similar research study from 1969 published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 120 male students filling out a survey either alone or with a friend or stranger heard a crash in an adjoining room, followed by the voice of a woman crying out: “Oh my God, my foot … I…I…can’t move it. Oh my ankle. I…can’t get this …thing off me.” Seventy percent of those taking the survey alone went to help, but only 40 percent of those filling out the survey with another in the room went to assist.

Fortunately, there are examples that counter this “diffusion of responsibility,” where people wait for others to act. Recently, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a 48-year-old mother, got off a London bus and saw a man lying on the ground. She immediately tried to administer first aid, but found that the man was already dead. Then two armed men approached her. One told her he had killed a former soldier and was going to attack the police, when they arrived, over British policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and told her to go away. Instead, she stood her ground and reasoned with the men, and succeeded in calming them down and preventing further violence until the police came. The outcome could have been much worse if Loyau-Kennett had not intervened.

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Emmanuel Levinas, a Talmudic scholar and philosopher from the last century who was born in Lithuania and later became a citizen of France,  experienced tremendous evil. As a French officer in 1940, he was captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. His Lithuanian family members were murdered by the Nazis, while his wife and daughter were safely hidden by religious Christians in France. His experience and study led him to a philosophy that is often summarized as “ethics precedes ontology.” Time and time again, Levinas made clear that it is our own responsibility to respond to the needs of the other, not someone else’s; we cannot be replaced.

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…responsibility binds me as irreplaceable and unique. It binds me as elected. To the very degree to which it appeals to my responsibility, it forbids me any replacement. As unreplaceable for this responsibility, I cannot slip away from the face of my neighbor without avoidance, or without fault, or without complexes; here I am pledged to the other without any possibility of abdication.

Our responsibility to such individuals is not reciprocal or connected to expectations.

A responsibility without concern for reciprocity: I have to respond for an other without attending to an other’s responsibility in regard to me. A relation without correlation, or a love of the neighbor that is a love without eros (Of G-d who comes to mind, translated by Bettina Bergo).

We need not pause to ask ourselves whether or not we can or should help the other. We also check ourselves to ensure our motives are pure in how we employ religion. Too often, religion furthers contempt for our fellow humans rather than building bridges and spreading love and friendship. Emmanuel Levinas, who initially was a strong proponent of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger but later was repelled by Heidegger’s enthusiastic embrace of the Nazi regime, explains the dangerous role of the pious “seducer.”

…The seducer knows all the ploys of language and all its ambiguities. He knows all the terms of the dialectic. He exists precisely at the moment of human freedom, and the most dangerous of seducers is the one who carries you away with pious words to violence and contempt for the other man” (Alterity and Transcendence).

One of the great contributions of religion is the awareness of the Divine in the other human being and the concomitant responsibilities this awareness demands. Levinas explains that the central relationship with the Divine is not through the realm of belief but through responsibility. “The sentence in which G-d comes to be involved in words is not ‘I believe in G-d’…. It is the ‘here I am’ said to the neighbor to whom I am given over…”

We are more aware than ever of the hypocrisies within aspects of religion and the necessary tools of secular society to assist our moral endeavors. Levinas explains the importance of advancing technology to expose the misery of others.

I claim that without technology, we would be in no position to feed the Third World. I know of no more frightening images than some of the scenes of African life shown on television; and those children! Nothing is nobler than exposing man’s misery (“In the Name of the Other,” 190).

We must embrace a modest religious approach that is boldly empowered with personal responsibility. In doing so, we also humbly embrace our partners in society as well as the great secular tools created to assist our moral and spiritual endeavors. This approach also demands that we take responsibility, ourselves and actively, for the spiritual and secular health and benefit of others. Philosophers and social science researchers can agree on this, and we religious citizens of the world owe it to ourselves and to each other to take this lesson to heart and to hand.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.