“A Universe of Obligation” by Ruth Messinger

Reference: Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility

THE TALMUD TEACHES us that “whoever can prevent his household from committing
a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens,
he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is responsible
for the sins of the whole world.” (Shabbat 54b) We are accountable for injustices perpetrated
anywhere that we could have intervened — as our power and resources increase, so does our
level of responsibility.

In the age of globalization, as our world becomes ever more interconnected, our universe
of obligation expands. We accrue tremendous benefits from the efficiencies of a global economy
— inexpensive goods, cultural exchange, travel — but we have to accept the responsibility
that goes along with these advantages.

When the products we buy are assembled in South Asia from raw materials gathered in Africa and shipped to us by companies based in Latin America, our notion of community must encompass the people in all of those disparate places. They are our economic, social, and cultural partners in what has become a truly global civilization — and our ignorance of the conditions in which they live and die is no excuse for our complacency.

Our power and privilege as Americans and our ethical obligations as Jews create in us a unique obligation and opportunity to work for justice throughout our interdependent world. Our tradition teaches us that we must care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger– not because these are the only people who merit our attention and concern, but because they symbolize the most vulnerable roles in society. They are today’s rural farmers, urban slum dwellers, people living with AIDS, and victims of war and genocide. They are the people to whom we are beholden and in whose struggles we must join in solidarity. They are the people with whom AJWS is proud to make
common cause.

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Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (shma.com), Vol. 36, No. 627, p. 8.