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To Intervene or Not to Intervene

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The question I posed in a previous Op-Ed, Abraham Today, remains open: What should we do when we see two people fighting in middle of Synagogue services? How would Abraham react to such behavior?

The same question can be asked about any travesty that we witness. Here is an example of one that occurred several years ago: Sitting in a restaurant in New York City I noticed a family eating at a table next to me. “How sweet,” I thought, “a nice couple taking out their three children on a beautiful night.” Until I noticed something very disturbing: The father was berating his young child, maybe 9-10 year old, and suddenly gave him a resounding slap on his face. I tried ignoring the scene and looked away, but the obvious tension around me made that very difficult, especially when the wife and husband began to argue. With every ensuing outburst it became more and more obvious that this was not an anomaly; we were dealing with a dysfunctional family. It didn’t require any psychological training to see that these children were living in an abusive environment – with an angry father, and a weak, helpless mother. The vibe was horrible. I could feel the bitterness, rage and fear permeating the table near mine. I had no doubt that these innocent children were subject to an ongoing assault in their own home.

What to do? I simply could not tolerate sitting there just blithely biting into another piece of steak (or whatever delicacy was on my plate), indifferent to the pain being heaped upon these vulnerable children.

Should I approach the father and speak with him? He certainly would not welcome my gesture – a perfect stranger intervening in his personal business. But should that even matter? Should I sit by quietly while witnessing offensive behavior? Or perhaps my meddling will only provoke him further, taking it out on his family later? And after all, what can I say to an abusive man in few mere minutes that will in any way help him and his children? Then again, is that a reason to just turn a blind eye fully cognizant of a crime being perpetrated? Should I be speaking to the wife and the children? Or alert authorities to the potential risk? Is that even ethical when I have no proof? After all, I did not know this family. I had no first hand knowledge what their home life was like. Can I make a move simply based on my instincts? On the other hand, perhaps I could prevent some damage being done?

You see – this is far from simple.

What would you do?

What would Abraham do?

The same question can be asked about every form of inappropriate behavior that we may witness: What is the right thing to do – to intervene or not?

You witness a  co-worker stealing money from your company? Do you ignore him, report him or confront him? You know that your neighbor is abusing his spouse. What action, if any, should you take?

The Torah lays out various guidelines as to our responsibility not to stand by silently and ignore the perpetration of a crime, as well as warning others of potential danger. We also have an obligation to reprimand a sinful person – first privately and gently, and if that does not help, publicly. But applying these rules requires a case-by-case analysis. How, for instance, do these doctrines apply to the restaurant incident? If your intervention will not help solve, and possibly even exacerbate, the problem, do you intervene? If you are not positive that a crime has been committed, can you pass judgment? After all, there is a due process that allows people the right of innocence until proven guilty. Can you act based on your “sense” that there is a serious problem?

I will share with you what I did in the Synagogue – after stating a key principle, based on the Torah’s universal values and its extraordinarily sensitive approach to dealing with the human condition, epitomized by Abraham.

First and foremost, Abraham showed exceptional kindness to everyone he encountered. Whether they were friends or strangers, family or visitor, allies or foes. Abraham even prayed for the infidels of Sodom.

The first thing Abraham did was open his home – his tent was open on all four sides – welcoming guests from whatever geographical or ideological direction they came. The Talmud relates that after graciously feeding his guests, he would ask them kindly to bless G-d for their meal. If they refused, the Midrash adds, he would tell them to pay for the food.

Abraham planted a tree in Beersheba, and there he called in the name of G-d, Lord of the Universe (Genesis 21:33). Resh Lakish said: Read not ‘and he called’ but ‘and he made to call’, thereby teaching that our father Abraham caused the Divine name to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, ‘Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the G-d of the Universe. Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being’ ­(Talmud Soteh 10b)

The axiom then is that only through first loving your fellow human being can you bring that person to love G-d. The best way to help inspire someone to improve his or her ways is by showing love to that person. Not as a gimmick or maneuver to warm that person up so that you can rebuke him, but simply, with genuine, sincere love – demonstrating that you really care.

What really lays at the heart of the resistance anyone has to hearing rebuke? Pride, fear of being judged, shame, exposure.

And conversely, what truly motivates us to try correcting a wrongful situation? Often it may come from arrogance, judgment, a sense of superiority and one-upmanship. It may also be that you enjoy putting others down. If your words of rebuke are condescending, rest assured that your words will not have an effect.

If however the other person feels that your words are coming from a heartfelt place, that you sincerely care about him, then he may be open to hear what you have to say.

Too much criticism is showered on people with wrong or ill intentions. For some strange reason, humans often enjoy criticizing others – whether it comes from insecurity, or makes them feel better about themselves, it’s just an ugly trait that people are capable of.

The single most important prerequisite before intervening in a travesty is your own selfless and loving attitude, and your genuine concern about the situation.

With that in mind – and remembering the frightful fistfight of my childhood – I approached the two people arguing, and asked them permission to say something. Startled, they both turned to me and asked what I wanted. Kindly, I stated that when they have a free minute I would like to ask them something. I guess due to the surprise, being caught unaware, or out of simple courtesy, they stopped their argument and waited for me to speak. All I said was this: “From a distance it appeared that you are both long-time friends who are having a dispute. And I was wondering if I can be of any assistance in resolving the argument. The reason I ask is because I and a few others are trying to pray, and your spat is disturbing us.”

One of the two gentlemen aggressively replied: “What we are talking about is none of your business.” Even as he was saying the words I could see that the other man was a bit ashamed, sheepishly withdrawing from the conversation.

Though I don’t believe that I resolved their problem, I successfully diffused it for that moment. And who knows? Maybe something positive would come of it…

In the restaurant, sadly, I admit to having done nothing. In retrospect, I feel that I should have said something to the father. But for some reason, at the time, I could not bring myself to do so. Not sure why. Now I think it was because I felt uncomfortable, and perhaps may have feared the backlash. Regretfully, had I perhaps cared a bit more, and felt more sensitive to the situation, I would have gotten over my own resistance, and simply called the father over to a side and said:

“You have such beautiful children. Such gentle souls. G-d must have really loved you to bestow you with such a gift to cherish and protect. It hurts me, in the deepest possible way, to see that these children have provoked you to raise your voice to them.”

Even if the father had told me to mix out of his business, I would have persisted: “I know it may not be my business, but please hear what I am saying. Your children are just so, so delicate…”

Would that have helped? Who knows? But it definitely would not have hurt…

What would you have done?

Your comments and suggestions to this critical discussion are welcome and necessary. Please share your thoughts.

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AZ

You did what you were meant to do that day, if you had been meant to do more the words would have been on your tongue at that moment instead of later. This experience was a dress rehearsal, and now a call out to us all. To inform us that it is our duty to educate others and protect the innocent. Sometimes I hear in a distance this same type of inappropriate behavior in stores, and I ponder what I will need to say when I run into them. They mostly do not cross my path, but when they do… Read more »

Sharon W

As always, Rabbi, your topic and commentary are deeply thoughtful and sensitive. Having worked in the field of domestic violence, as well as holding an appointment to a legislative body responsible for writing and implementing laws, regulations and policies to protect women and children, this topic is of particular interest to me. Of course what truly drew me to this piece was the question, what would Abraham do, for I turn to his example as a personal guide in life each day. Recently while studying more details of the earlier years of Abraham, I came across scriptural reference to the… Read more »

yessoschar

If one loses a child, one loses the world. A child is precious. A common story is heard from adults who, as young children, were hit by their Rabbi in the classroom, and as the result, lost interest in Jewish education and the beauties of Jewish life. There are consequences to many young children, from an adult’s overly aggressive behavior. Striking a child in a public restaurant falls in that overly aggressive behavior category. Why take the risk to this family and walk away from the situation? If you confront the father and he continues his bad behavior you know… Read more »

Valencia Wescott

What came to me as I listened to your story Rabbi, is the part of it that referred to the home of Abraham and specifically that it was open and he was available to the benefit of others. Perhaps a simple invite to your home to experience love in action would have brought out the same in them toward each other. Love by example.

Yehudis

Dear Rabbi Jacobson- I appreciate your thoughtful and honest inquiry and musings on this important topic. It brings to mind an incident I witnessed last year in a supermarket. I was shopping in the produce section and sensed a tumult in another aisle. I looked up to see as well as hear a father angrily addressing his tween son and daughter. As I watched he cornered the young girl, who raised her hands to protect her face but too late, she received a loud and hard slap on her cheek, accompanied by more invective and gesticulation from her out of… Read more »

sharona

i truly have experienced this tough question many times in my life the few several times i got involved in helping kids out from a abusive home
were at the time i was hesitant and today i know it had meant life for them
as i hear on news lately in Israel more abuse happening at frum homes and neighbors not interfering has damaged their lives i understand how sometimes we must interfere even if we ourselves are shy private personalities

Deena

Rabbi Jacobson, thank you for the article. I wish more people would intervene: specifically I wish rabbis would intervene in cases of physical abuse against wives and children. In my experience, rabbis turn the other cheek or, worse, blame the wife for the violence. We need to address the problem of rabbis siding with the aggressor/abuser. This particular point is currently being discussed on several Jewish blogs in regard to sexual abuse of children, but it also applies to violence and emotional abuse.It is the rabbis in the shuls who are pandering to the rich donors, and ignoring the real… Read more »

lynn rice

Because, as already stated, this situation may be misread, and/or by intervention made worse at the moment and/or a later time, it seems the solution is for HaShem to intervene, our action being prayer. This would include prayer for peace for the immediate situation, HaShems peace and love in their marriage and home, help for their finances, health, and whatever problems they are facing, and that HaShem would draw them to Him that their lives can change. Finally, praying that HaShem would work out the whole situation according to His Will.

Linda

Hello Rabbi. I cannot tell you how much your articles and reflections mean to me and my husband. Our Shabbos lunch conversation was about your question of our responsibility to intervene when we see abuse. My approach, although perhaps not totally kosher would be to approach this man as if I had met him before at a at a Jewish event and tell him it was nice to see him again, and that I would love to get his address so that I could send him an invitation to an upcoming kumzits he might enjoy attending. If he would give… Read more »

sandy james

Thank you for presenting this situation for all of us to ponder. Sadly, emotional abuse, is one of the most damaging of all abuses, and is probably more prevalent than we will ever know. I believe the answers that were posted all are viable options … I believe prayer, each of us, putting our intention with G+ds for healing and insight to the situation and others like may lead to eventual healing of these kinds of things…remembering hurt people hurt others. Blessings to you in all you do and teach.

j.j.cabouch

In asking the question, you presented two situations that clearly mark the playing field upon which we face such a decision. On the one hand, we have the event occuring within a community of likes, i.e., those who share certain understandings and rules of living, where any words spoken in remedial efforts have a better than fair chance of having positive impact and result. On the other, it is the larger world in which we live, where the event involves others who likely do not share such a foundation of understanding, and within whom such words from a strange source… Read more »

lakshmi

More than once I have been faced with this dilemma and my inclination is to find the win /win in the situration in order to achieve a meaningful outcome. If that is not possible {which is rare] I will intervene as a mother should to protect her cubs. when I was told that a beagle living down the street from me was abused and lived 24 seven in the hot sun ;with the first two years of her life in a cage in the garage in SouthFLorida, I did not beleive it! However I went to see for myself the… Read more »

Judy Lederman

I really appreciate your treatise and the questions you pose. With all the information and media, reality TV and twitter communication so readily at our beck & call, we have become a nation of voyeurs and critics, yet so often we ignore the call to action. I am sure I would have undergone the same thought process that you describe. The desire to help, the reluctance to approach, and the uncertainty about how to get involved in a way that would not embarrass the arguers, but would possibly create some kind of healing. The midrash about Avraham initially rejecting a… Read more »

alex

In your approach to the subject your sensitivity and other centeredness areexemplary and worthy of emulation.Thematically, the Torah seems to ask of us, and continually directing us, to take a stand. Examples: Abraham pleading for Sodom to be spared, Moses attacking the Egyptian beating on a Hebrew, etc.., actualizing the dictum that, in the face of where there is no one to take a principled stand, be the one to do it, even when you are acting alone.Good judgment and discernment are imperative to being effective in an intervention, as well as being properly motivated, as in coming from the… Read more »

Steve Parker

Likely, I would have avoided a confrontation in the restaurant. Had I spoken, however, I would have established some common ground between the father and myself, perhaps in the context of how both of us realize the difficulty in raising children and how patience can be easily strained. Even if one hasnt been there per se, an expression of relating to the fathers ordeal can open avenues to substantive conversation. He might allow you in and, in so doing, experience a catharsis of his own. Just something to consider.

David Richter

We know that energy and matter are interchangeable, and we also know that thought is energy. In the restaurant situation you describe (which I myself have experienced as an onlooker), what I have done is simply sent loving thoughts to the family, and at the same time seeing them at peace with one another. In my experience, this simple method works. Its intervention and yet not invasive.

Ronald R. Roth

In the heat of a family argument, we really do forget how fragile children are. Provoked by misbehavior, parents resort to practices suffered by themselves at the hands of their own parents so long ago. It takes a concerted effort to abolish these brutish attacks on our children. A parent must make a conscious effort to carefully prepare for the stresses of childrearing. I have grandchildren as well as young children of my own, and I am only just beginning to see this wisdom….probably nothing you would have done would have helped in that situation. It would be hoped that… Read more »

Jeff Picazio

I would follow the advice of Solomon in proverbs 26:17 Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.

In regard to witnessing a child being abused, I would personally call 911 and report it.

richard reiser

I understand your discomfort. However, the child is the one who was struck by his father. While we dont know the circumstances of the situation, it clearly made folks around them uncomfortable in a public venue for which they are paying. Speaking with the manager would have taken the burden off of you and would have placed the burden on management and father. Namely, that certain behavior was not appropriate.Win win. Shabbat Shalom!

Nina Moliver

Many years ago, I saw a mother in a train station walking her young child by holding onto his left ear. The child was struggling to keep up. His left ear was totally misshapen, obviously after years of being walked this way. To this day, I regret not saying something. Thank you for your article and your thoughts.

for sure I would have done nothing. But as I cultivate more awarness in my life, a lot thanks to you, I would hope that if I came across such situation in the future, I would have the courage to say something like:
I know how you feel! Ive felt like slapping my kids so many times!! But I learnt better. Everytime I let anger guide me it just makes it worse for me and them. Self control takes effort but it is very rewarding and there are books and people that can really help!

Rabbi Moshe Scholnick

Rabbi Jacobson,

I remember the following story: A.S. Neill, who was a pacifist and the founder of the Summerhill School for children, once came upon a father beating up his son. He attacked the father, thus stopping the beating of the fathers son. Neil said it was the only violent act of his life, but he did it because the son was so defenseless…Your comment?

Rabbi Moshe Scholnick of Jerusalem and South Florida

Sarah

One never knows the outcome of intervening, but that doesnt meant that we always have to confront the person. I believe, you confronting the 2 who are arguing in the Synagogue you did get a positive reaction from the one who seemed embarrassed. Perhaps he has learned to be more respectful of G-D and others during prayer service. With the Father who slapped the child. I would have called the authorities and not approached the Family at all. Reason being, is there would have been an investigation to see if the Father did in fact further abuse the family. This… Read more »

Chaim ben Avraham

Rabbi, One idea that came to me as I thought about the situation at the restaurant was to ask the couple if it would be of help to them if I watched the children so they could continue their discussion in a less public spot. I might have begun by saying I know how uncomfortable it can be to have a difficult discussion in a public place and maybe I could help, then ask about watching the children. I would hope this would be perceived not as attacking or criticizing them, but just done to help, as you so eloquently… Read more »

elaine

Perhaps you could have invited the family to your home for Shabbos meal or a chance to partake in your shul services, make them feel welcome and without judgement. Get to know the parties, then gently direct them to therapy. Once you have gained their respect, your directions would be heeded.

DJ

If I thought someone like Rabbi Jacobson would intervene if my husband and I were having an argument in public, I would not confine myself to private disagreements!

deana

I have had this very dilemma today, to the point of it bringing me to tears. I have reason to believe a dear friend is lying and possibly being unfaithful to her unsuspecting spouse, and I wasnt completely sure how to proceed and whether to address it or not. This article pointed me in the right direction.

Heena Reiter

I am very moved by your descriptions of these challenging situations. I have often found myself responding or wanting to respond in similar situations. For example, in a supermarket or department store, Ive approached a Mom whos yelling at her child and asking if I can offer any help. I usually indicate that I know how hard it can be with children. Ive had both positive and negative responses. One thing Ive done when Im unwilling – for whatever reason – to approach the people, is Ive prayed for them. Right then and there, Ive offered a petitionary or intercessory-style… Read more »

blumah wineberg

BH
Interestingly, a question of this sort was asked of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by the perpetrator himself who admitted to having a temper and striking a child. The Rebbes response to him was, your children are G-ds children, do you think you would hit G-ds child?!
Blumah Wineberg

Sarah Leah

While your successful attempt to diffuse the situation at shul is admirable, in the instance of the dysfunctional family at the restaurant, when a pathologically abusive person is raging the kind of intervention you suggest would likely only cause the situation to escalate perhaps involving you in an physical way and perhaps causing further abuse of the family at home after leaving the restaurant. In this situation I fear your approach could have provoked increased abusive behavior as you were dealing with a person in a beyond reason state.

Kreina

One thought is to slip the wife a piece of paper with my name and phone number on it, and the words, call if you need someone to talk to because although the husband surely needed, at best, some classes in anger management, she and the kids might need a safer environment in which to live.

Batya Morris

Rabbi,My heart goes out to you regarding the situation in the restaurant. As a social worker, i am quite aware of how difficult it is to make such a call. I recall a similar situation I experienced in a grocery store in which a mother was severely verbally abusing her child. I only responded with a look, to which the mother responded with a heightened verbally abusive response to her child about what he was causing others to think. I felt like anything I did would only make the situation worse for the child. At the same time, I felt… Read more »

john

You should have shot him. Imagine what he might do in the future to his children. Thats the problem in the Orthodox world. Report him to the appropriate civil services. no you are afraid to . Telushkin, whose books I highly admire, tells a story which took place in a synagogue. where he didnt do enough. not enough. Something has to be done about abusive parents, and everyone is afraid to be involved. And NO, I did not have physically abusive parents. Shame on both of you.

Laura Wise

As always, thank you for your inspiring
words. Your ability to share these stories of living in harmony with whatever life presents is a gift that I cherish tremendously.