One of the great moral innovations of the Torah comes in the korban hatat, the sin offering. According to the Book of Leviticus that we begin reading this week, the hatat is brought by an individual when he has unwittingly committed an act which would be punishable by death had he actually intended to do it. If one inadvertently caused a fire to be lit on Shabbat, for instance (say by accidentally tipping over an oil lamp), one would not be fully responsible for that action, as one hadn’t intended to do it. But the person still transgressed the law against lighting a fire on Shabbat, and thus bears some culpability, and so he is required to bring a hatat sacrifice. This is the moral space within which the hatat operates.
This is a remarkable idea. In our rational-self-actor-infused economic thought of today, we tend to argue that people are only responsible for that which they intended to do. If I was able to make a free choice about my action, then I am responsible for it. If I wasn’t free, I’m not. But this assumes a faith in our reason and clarity about our choices that, upon further reflection, we often find we don’t really have. The philosopher William James, father of the school of thought known as pragmatism, argued that we can never really know all the impulses, rational and otherwise, that motivate us to make a choice. Often we choose and construct a rationale to support our choice later. What we think is free will may not in fact be so.
This is because we are social creatures, born into networks of mutual acknowledgment and responsibility. We do not exist in isolation. And so others have an influence on, and a degree of responsibility for, our actions, and we for theirs. Kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, All Israel are guarantors for one another, as the Talmud says. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel more powerfully put it, Some are guilty, but all are responsible.
Thus while there are clearly times when we will something to be, and when we are fully responsible for our actions (and would thus be subject to more severe punishment than the hatat), most of the time we are less clear about our wants and wills, and about the forces that bring our actions into being. More often than not, we operate in a moral gray zone. And yet the message of the hatat is that, even when we are in that fuzzy space, we are still responsible. Not to the point of ultimate responsibility, but still to a significant degree.
For me, this forms the backdrop to reflecting on the much-discussed recent incident in a Northwestern human sexuality course. Over 1,000 students have signed a petition in support of the professor, basing their reasoning on the notion that consenting adults—including college students—should be free to engage in pedagogical exercises that promote healthy living, provided they are free to make the choice to do so. What seems missing from the conversation thus far, however, is reflection on not only the rights of human life (the right to sexual pleasure may be one of them—it certainly is one the Torah specifies as a right of marriage), but equally if not more importantly the responsibilities of being human.
What does it mean to watch someone making a live demonstration of sexually pleasuring themselves? Do the audience members, and more so the professor, bear any responsibility for the effects of what went on? Are we absolutely clear that this was a good and just thing to do?
The Torah is not prudish. Holiness is not prudish. As we will read in a few weeks, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” is interpreted not only to mean separate from that which is unholy, but also sanctify yourself within that which is permitted. The Torah, and the tradition that flows from it, sees holiness not in denying that which is good, but discerning what is good and fully enjoying it.
That discernment takes place in the context of a world in which we are mutually dependent and mutually responsible for one another. Living in God’s image is not simply about self-fulfillment, but about recognizing the image of God in all of creation. That recognition should lead to a wider sense of responsibility, a sense that means that, even when I’m not guilty, I’m still responsible.