Last week, the Freeh Report revealed that Penn State's leaders covered up Jerry Sandusky's crimes to protect the university's image, its football program and Joe Paterno's reputation. This outrageous moral failure is inexcusable.
But in addition to righteous indignation, we might also use the news as an opportunity for self-reflection. As my teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, taught in a recent sermon, the moral spinelessness of Penn State's leaders sickens us because we like to picture ourselves as those who would risk everything to run into burning buildings. But studies in social psychology, particularly those done in the wake of the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered outside her home in Queens, N.Y., while 38 witnesses did nothing to save her, show that most of us would act like Penn State's leadership, silently looking away.
True, we may not witness crimes as heinous, we may not see them occur repeatedly over many years and we may not be in positions of comparable power. Nonetheless, when many of us see immoral behavior, we do not speak out. Sometimes, we absolve ourselves of responsibility by blaming the victims or with other rationalizations. Occasionally, we even protect the guilty.
We do this because we feel it is "not our problem." We assume someone else will handle it, we feel powerless to stop it, we are afraid of negative repercussions or we know we're morally imperfect and fear being labeled as hypocrites. Examples range from the mundane to the monstrous. We refrain from reporting our boss's defrauding an unwitting client for fear of getting fired. And we passively watch the daily slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Syria.
The sad truth is that, when push comes to shove, we are Penn State, or at least have the propensity to be.
We are fortunate, however, to have a Torah that is honest about this human frailty and, more importantly, offers a way for us to overcome it, to be the morally courageous people we want to be. Take the story of Pinchas (Numbers: 25-26). In that story, the Israelites begin worshiping idols and fornicating with Midianite women. The community's leaders do the natural human thing, which is to do nothing. So God commands Moses to impale all the leaders, whether or not they were involved in the sins.
Moses, however, avoids God's command. He passes the buck, instructing the judges to do the killing. Moreover, Moses asks that only the sinners be executed. Like the community's other leaders, like Penn State's leaders, and, indeed, like many of us, Moses refuses to act to stop the sinful behavior personally. Furthermore, Moses watches on with the rest of the community as an Israelite tribal chieftain performs a public sexual act with a Midianite woman at the Tabernacle entrance.
Only Pinchas, son of the High Priest, executes God's order. He does this despite the intimidating status of the Israelite sinner. And he does this against his own self-interest. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 32b), Pinchas knew that a priest who kills a person, even if the killing is just, is no longer permitted to serve as a priest. But Pinchas was willing to risk his own life and position in order to do the right thing, and, as a result, he is awarded God's "covenant of peace."
This story affirms that most people, even otherwise good people, avoid intervening in moral crises. But it also insists that summoning the courage to act is within reach.
So what distinguishes Pinchas, and what can we learn from him? According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Pinchas set aside other considerations and asks himself: What would God want me to do?
This question can push us beyond our apathy and our self-interest to obey the Torah's imperative not to remain indifferent (Deuteronomy 22:3). If we acknowledge a situation's moral urgency and see ourselves as accountable for our actions and our inactions, we are more likely to respond. If we train ourselves, like Pinchas, to ask, with each choice we face, "what would God have me do?" we are more likely to make the morally courageous — and right — decision. As the Mishnah teaches (Avot 3:1), if we are aware that we will have to account to God for our actions, we will avoid sin.
Indeed, this insight squares with the findings of many studies. When subjects are told beforehand that they are going to be placed in a moral conundrum, and that they are going to be judged based on their responses, they rush into action.
In other words, maybe we are Penn State. But the Jewish tradition insists that if we are careful, if we are thoughtful and if we are faithful, we don't have to be.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.