Should bystanders come to the rescue?

Should bystanders come to the rescue?

Looking down Murray Avenue toward the Forbes Avenue intersection (Photo by Peter Pawlowski/flickr)
Looking down Murray Avenue toward the Forbes Avenue intersection (Photo by Peter Pawlowski/flickr)

P.N., who asked not to be named in this article, was taking a walk with her husband and their two small children in Squirrel Hill last week, when they stopped into the Rite Aid at Forbes and Murray avenues, arguably the busiest intersection in the heavily Jewish neighborhood.  

Waiting in line, the family was accosted by a man who, noticing the tzitzit and yarmulke worn by P.N’s husband, began to accuse them of not being proper Jews, since, P.N. said, they were “too white,” a reference to the fact that the original inhabitants of Israel were dark skinned. As they left the store, the man followed them out onto the busy street, calling them “dirty Jews” and other “filthy words and terms.” P.N. described the “eerie silence” that descended on the street as passers-by looked away or tried to pretend nothing was happening.

In a Facebook post from last week, P.N. said that beyond the anti-Semitism, the most upsetting part of this incident was the inaction and inattentiveness from everyone on the “very busy … street. Not one person came to stand by us. All I wanted,” she said in the post, “was for someone to come and stand next to us. Walk over as the situation ended and ask us if we’re OK. By being quiet, everyone on the street agreed that we were ‘dirty Jews.’”     

This ugly incident begs the question: What exactly is the role of bystanders? Do they have an ethical duty to intervene in the Jewish tradition? A legal duty?

The role and responsibilities of the bystander is raised in halachah. Rabbi Danny Schiff, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and was reached by phone in Jerusalem, said that in these sorts of situations, people feel reluctant to speak out lest they, in turn, become a victim. “The overwhelming sensation that most people have,” said Schiff, “is that they’re afraid that if they intervene, they’ll become victims or exacerbate the situation.” In cases where the altercation is, or clearly will become, a physical one, Schiff says the Torah exhorts us, “lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.” “You shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of your fellow man.” A now-infamous case of just such an incident is the murder of Kitty Genovese on March 14, 1964, in which, over the course of nearly 40 minutes, 38 of Genovese’s neighbors heard her cries for help and yet did not intervene or even call the police.

While certainly not as drastic as Genovese’s situation, P.N.’s unfortunate experience hinges on the same basic premise of inaction. Schiff said that in a case like P.N.’s, where the woman and her family were subjected to “verbal violence” there is a separate dictum from Parshat Vayikra, which instructs, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.”

Schiff said that though this law applies to Jews and is not one of the seven Noahide laws, it can be reasonably extrapolated to apply to any non-Jew witnessing such an outburst.

“You have a responsibility when someone is behaving badly to set them on the right path,” said Schiff, adding that one can do so in a reasonable and nonconfrontational manner, while still being firm. Schiff acknowledged that this is one of the more “awkward and difficult mitzvot” but that the discomfort that comes along with it shouldn’t be a barrier to action. Schiff added that we live in a world where the “it’s not my business” mindset is a prevalent one. While this can result in good, it also “allows bad behavior to fester” and enables people to attack others — whether verbally or physically — with little to no accountability.

Rabbi Sholom Deitsch, who helms the Northern Virginia chapter of Chabad Lubavitch, added that “you have an obligation to help someone else” in such a situation.

But on the civil side, “as a legal matter the law is quite clear” that there is no duty to aid others, said Justin Dillon, a criminal defense attorney with Kaiser, LeGrand and Dillon in Wash-

ington, D.C. And yet, he said, “there is a difference between a moral duty and a legal duty. Whether a moral duty exists is an issue for philosophers and theologians.”

P.N. ended her Facebook post by saying that she had written it as a call to action. She urged that the next time anyone witnessed cruelty or injustice in their lives, instead of turning away or averting their eyes, they should do what P.N. had vowed to herself she would: find the courage to stand up and to speak out.

Masha Shollar is an intern with The Chronicle. She can be reached at