Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze La’zeh – All Israel (Jews) are Responsible for One Other
This statement is found in two Talmudic tractates – Sanhedrin 27b and Shavuot 39a. Its power draws from its holistic inclusivity, simplicity and concreteness. Those five words articulate in a normative language, i.e. in the form of an imperative, the enduring understanding of what Jewish Peoplehood means: being responsible for one another.
It is important to note that in order to reinforce the message, the word kol (all) was added to the sentence. Although the core message is actually captured by the last four words stating that Jews are responsible for each other, the word “all” emphasizes that the responsibility is that of each and every Jew.
This articulation expands the mandate of the imperative. We are not only talking about mutual responsibility, where I help you because I expect that you will help me someday, but also about joint responsibility, where I help you purely because of the responsibility I feel for you as a member of the collective, and not from any expectation of reciprocity.
The principle is articulated to obligate each and every Jew by virtue of being part of K’lal Yisrael, the collective.
Furthermore, the Hebrew version talks about responsibility in the context of being “guarantors” (Areivim) for each other. Thus, Judaism introduced the ‘burden’ of responsibility. We are accountable and responsible for one another. The particularistic nature of this commandment is very deep.
It is not telling us that we should just help Jews more than non-Jews. It is telling us that we carry the burden of responsibility to impact the way other Jews act and behave. We don’t have the right to impose on people who are not of our religion. But we have the obligation of imposing upon our own people.
The Jewish community as it evolved throughout history in all corners of the world (both east and west, both centuries ago and today) stands out for its social and educational communal institutions. The values of Tzedek (social justice) and Tzedaka (charity or social welfare) became the core values constituting the Jewish community.
The community took care of its needy and weaker members through communal institutions and personal generosity long before the word philanthropy became popular. But a sense of total responsibility did not just translate to the realm of Tzedek and Tzedaka. It resulted in a holistic communal system that took care of the needs of individual Jews from birth, through the education process, to marriage, to helping a person find a job and “parnasa” (making a living) and all the way to burial.
This comprehensive, extensive and unique Jewish communal approach was the expression of the imperative of total joint responsibility and commitment of Jews to one another.
Jews have always contributed generously to the welfare and needs of individual Jews and Jewish communities beyond their own. Examples of such actions include collecting funds to help the community in Israel throughout the ages, participating in Pidyon Shvuiim (liberation of prisoners) in the distant past, helping to support and sustain Eastern European Jews in the 20th century, mobilizing to build the Jewish State, campaigning to “Save Soviet Jewry” and rescuing the Jewish Ethiopian community, to name just a few.
These dramatic and intense manifestations of solidarity were expressions of the Jewish responsibility to all Jews, in all places, at all times.
In the current Jewish conversation, many believe that Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La’zeh (All Jews are Responsible for One Another) still captures the essence of the Jewish collective agenda, with some even challenging the need to adopt the new terminology of “Peoplehood.” We do not believe, however, that the issue is about an alternative ideological approach.
It reflects more the change in the current Jewish paradigm. In the past, when there was an inherent agreement on the essence and values of the Jewish collective, a normative articulation of its spirit sufficed. Today, the meaning of the Jewish collective, its role and its purpose is no longer a given. The assumption that Jews are to assume responsibility for all Jews is being questioned and sometimes challenged.
Younger generations of American Jews have been raised in an educational system that emphasizes the importance of cultural pluralism; klal yisrael seems antithetical to these lessons of equality among peoples. The imperative does not flow naturally from the current value system and needs to be justified and given meaning in today’s terms. Thus, the call for Peoplehood, which includes both the rationale and the imperative.
One dimension of today’s challenge of the imperative focuses on the question of why should Jews care about their own people more than about any other human being. It raises the ethical tension between the universal call to help any human in need versus the call to prioritize the members of one’s people. This tension between particularism and universalism is a modern day challenge to Jewish Peoplehood. For more on this topic, check out the Theme on this subject.
 For some general principles about the commandment to ransom captives, see www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ethics/Caring_For_Others/Social_Welfare/Ransoming_Captives.shtml
 For more information about Operation Moses, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1984 and 1991, see http://www.moia.gov.il/English/FeelingIsrael/AboutIsrael/Pages/mivtzaMoshe.aspx