Mesirah? Ask the rabbi

July 31, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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“Mesira” was a key word in the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Rabbi Apple answers  about its meaning.

MESIRAH

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Does one have a duty to report someone for an alleged crime and, if so, to whom?

A. The question of whether one has a duty to report a person for an alleged wrongful act must always have been a problem since it receives considerable treatment in ethical writings.

The Torah has two rules which define the legal extremities. One is, “Do not go about as a tale-bearer” (Lev. 19:16), and the other, “If you do not tell, you bear a sin on his account” (Lev. 5:1).

Between the two poles there are a number of intermediate considerations such as the motive of the “moser”. “Mesirah” (“informing”) goes by many names – “spilling the beans”, “whistle-blowing”, “dobbing someone in”, etc., though each name has its own nuances.

It might be sheer mischief or revenge; on the other hand it might be the well-being of the community, including saving a person from harm (e.g. a child who may be at risk from a pedophile), in which case the Torah says, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Lev. 19:16). The rules and their ramifications are analysed in the Chafetz Chayyim’s work on evil speech.

There is a major question of whom you should tell, in circumstances in which it would be wrong to cover up the alleged act.

In the first instance there is a duty to warn and admonish the alleged offender (Lev. 19:17), but you must be certain of your facts and speak tactfully and objectively.

In a Jewish community you should go to a rabbi, but there may be circumstances that render this inappropriate.

In a democratic society the alleged wrongdoing should be reported to the constituted authorities without concern for the religious or cultural affiliations of the alleged wrongdoers. In particular, a Jew should not feel constrained by the thought of telling something to “the goyim”.

The authorities are there because they are citizens and it is irrelevant whether anyone is a Jew or a gentile. If, for example, a Jew happens to be Chief Justice of an Australian State, he is chief of the State and not the “goyish” judiciary.

True, there have been times of sectarian conflict in which a particular post has been denied to (say) a Roman Catholic, but there are democratic ways of dealing with such problems.

No matter who an alleged offender is, he or she will be dealt with by the normal processes of law in which Jews – like other citizens – might well hold public appointments. The old fear that a Jewish whistle-blower would endanger the Jewish community applied in a different age and different circumstances.

If I may conclude on a personal note, I recall a situation in which someone said to me, “You’re a rabbi, and you want a Jew to go to prison?” My reply was, “Only if he has broken the law!”

P’SUKEI D’ZIMRAH

Q. Why are the early morning Psalms called “P’sukei D’Zimrah”? Doesn’t the verb “z-m-r” mean to cut?

A. “Z-m-r” means both to sing, hence the translation of “P’sukei D’Zimrah” as “passages of song”, and to cut, hence the “P’sukei D’Zimrah” could be understood as cutting away the destructive forces that could affect our day.

Many of the Psalms are titled “Mizmor”, but to translate the word as ‘song” does not always work. Thus Psalm 79, “Mizmor L’Asaph” (A Song of Asaph) is no cheerful song but a harsh description of the destruction of Jerusalem.

If we render “Mizmor” in the sense of cutting off, the title indicates the subject-matter: the enemy has cut off the spiritual and national lifeline of the Jewish people, and we pray that God will cut them off and punish them for their misdeeds.

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