Blame is often seen as a bad thing and “blaming the system” is construed as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility. The moment I say “you did this”, I make it your fault and your responsibility. In other words, you are the one accountable. Yet perhaps we need to reconsider what blaming means, or more accurately what it should mean. Might we be justified when we blame Rabbinic leaders, teachers, committees or communal institutions for issues in our communities? Should we actually blame them or not and why would we blame them in the first place? These questions are crucial because blame is the grounding force behind constructive criticism and reflection.
Before we turn to these questions directly, let us consider two factors in the concept of blame: responsibility and accountability. Responsibility can be defined as fulfilling duties and roles. We have a clear system of responsibility for ourselves and others in Judaism as systemised in the Ten Commandments. The first five commandments deal with us and our relationship to g-d while the remaining five manage our relationships with others. We have explicit commands to guide each other with both rebuke and love. Most famously, Kol Yisrael Areivin Ze Be Zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. It is clear that we have responsibility for each other. Rabbis, leaders, parents, teachers, friends and so forth, all have a responsibility to play their role as defined. My school, my community and my synagogue all have functions. If they fail me, they have failed their responsibility.
Moreover, they are accountable for failing their respective duties and what is key here is the distinction between action and agent. I do acts and I am responsible for those acts. However, I did those acts for a reason. That reason or reasons will determine my level of accountability. If I steal because I’m starving, it doesn’t make it right. But it does make it more right (I would argue) than stealing because you want a fancy car. Someone who kills in self-defence is certainly less accountable than a hitman. They have both committed the same crime, but who they are and why is what is crucial. If we can answer the why, then we can assess accountability. It is a balance between an excuse and an explanation. Accountability therefore is how much we can blame or credit someone or something based on a particular act. When this comes to institutions, it is about what they do, not necessarily who or what they are. That is to say, the institution itself might be a good thing, but what it does is not.
At this point, we might want to ask if I am just hypothesising and theorising about philosophical concepts. However, we constantly assess and judge based on our views on responsibility and accountability. The decisions that are made by communal leaders, parents and every individual are influenced by the decision-maker’s attitude towards accountability. If one takes accountability too personally, it will be overlooking the act. If one takes accountability impersonally instead, the problem is not dealt with.
It is at this point where we have a third factor in blame: free will. The exact specifics of free will are debated in the literature and it is not necessary to consider the metaphysics extensively. However, we need to conclude for not only convenience’s sake but for the sake of morality, that we have free will. As Kant discussed in his Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, we need to assume we have free will for anything to have moral significance. If all of our actions were predetermined, there couldn’t be any reasoning for punishment or reward. To accord accountability and responsibility, we need to see people’s and institutions’ acts as consequences of their choices.
Morally therefore, those who fail their duties can be (all factors considered) held accountable because they had the possibility to act otherwise. The Rabbi could have given a sermon instead of “schmoozing.” If finance was mishandled because people were unwilling to hand over control to experts, then they are accountable. Yet at the same time, we have our own free will to which we can use to improve on the current baseline. We need to exercise our free will to conquer and create what we should have had. Doing that, in effect, turns into our own responsibility and accountability. The system is to blame for who I am, but it is not necessarily to blame for who I can be.
So accordingly, how much can we “blame the system”? It seems clear that leaders and institutions have responsibilities and duties to fulfil their functions of education, leadership and management. Their level of accountability, however, depends on the reason why they do or do not fulfill that duty. At this point, complications arise because these reasons are not straightforward. “We don’t have enough funds” “there are extra costs involved” are popular reasons for failure in communal sectors and perhaps justifiably. I don’t need to expound on the usual controversies of the price of kosher food and religious school fees – they are well enough known. Whatever the specific issues might be, there are problems; and what I want to ask now is: do we hold these institutions accountable or are we too feeble and defensive or protective?
I want to suggest that we don’t hold our community leaders and institutions accountable often enough because we don’t have clear-cut standards. Our conceptions of their responsibilities are vague. For example, “she goes to the Jewish school X” – but what are you expecting from that school? “She gets a religious education.” What does that even mean? What levels are you expecting – that she knows what kashrut is and that she is meant to light candles on Friday night? Equally, we need to have strong expectations of communal institutions. The Rabbi’s role is more than just hosting forty people over meals on Shabbat and Yom Tov; it is being rigorously educated in all matters of Jewish law and philosophy, sharing that knowledge and being dedicated to every member of the community without having the “Rabbi’s clique.”
External factors in our lives play a huge role in shaping our identities and as Hegelian philosophy points out, the self is created by the other. That is to say, we have identity because of those around us. My identity, therefore, as a Jew has been shaped by my education and experience with the community. I wouldn’t be “me” without the community. I can definitely blame them. They are responsible for who I am.
When we then consider blaming the system, we are entitled to blame and we should because it is responsible for what it has done. The system is far from perfect and we need to acknowledge room for change. The first step to that change is accountability. Whatever the current factors may be that have made the community and its institutions what they are now need to be critiqued. We need what is known as reflexive equilibrium – articulated by John Rawls – we have judgements and act accordingly. However, we need to assess those acts simultaneously; if we find them to be wrong, then we reassess our judgements. We need to stop saying “this is just the way it works” because things can always be altered. We have a clear set of moral rules and we should always evaluate if we meet those standards dictated not by us but by Jewish law. If we swallowed our pride, we’d often find that we over-exaggerate certain commandments and either violate or ignore others completely. We must constantly search for faults, place blame and accountability for failed responsibility in order to live up to morality but simultaneously we need to exert free will to change; we cannot be complacent. “Blaming the system” is about constructive criticism and according accountability for failings. When we blame, which we should, we need to look for the room for change.