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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-one

Today’s verse is what R. Travers Herford calls the doctrine of imputed righteousness, although I am using the translation of Joseph Hertz, which seems a trifle clearer in the first part.

Whosoever causes many to be righteous, through him no sin shall be brought about; but he who causes many to sin, shall not have the means to repent. Moses was righteous and made many righteous; the righteousness of many was laid upon him, as it is said, he executed the justice of the Lord, and his judgments with Israel. Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, sinned and caused many to sin; the sin of the many was laid upon him, as it is said, For the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned, and wherewith he made Israel to sin.

The translation is tricky because there is odd grammar and figures; it’s something like all virtue-makers to many, no sin through the hand; all sin-makers to many, no opportunity for the hands to be brought to repentance. And there’s a sort of pun in there, with words that sound similar, and so on and so forth. But the saying is, I think, clear, in that the Sages claim that the influence of a person on others is connected to the righteousness of the influencer.

Mr. Herford, as I said, calls it the doctrine of imputed righteousness, which asks whether the righteousness or sinfulness of the leader’s followers can be imputed, as it were, to the leader. If Jereboam causes many people to sin, but were to repent and inherit the world to come while his followers languish in Sheol (as it is put in the avot of Rabbi Nathan), how would that be fair? No, says this doctrine, for your own sins you can make t’shuvah, but for the sins you lead others into, how can you repent?

For those of us who are not particularly focused on the Other World, though, it raises the question: so what? And what about fairness? Wouldn’t it be better if the misleader had repentance available to him? And, in the actual world we know, aren’t there former gang leaders who work for t’shuvah? Robert S. McNamara, wasn’t he an example of the person who leads others into sin, but attempts, at least, to repent? Is some conception of reward and punishment after the endtime supposed to prevent that? Not to mention the many, many examples of those who exhort others to righteousness while failing in minor and major ways to fulfill their own expectations of themselves. How are we to take the idea that Moses (as in the proof text) does not have sin come to his hand with the various texts of Moses’ anger? Doesn’t the incident of Moses striking the rock disprove the whole idea?

On the other hand, the general point is a good one: if your influence is meanness, exclusion and bigotry, it’s not a defense to say that some of your best friends are the people that your followers hate. If your influence is greed, poverty and hunger, then your individual openhandedness is not going to make up for it. And futher, you mustn’t let your individual shortcomings deter you from using what influence you have to the good: it isn’t hypocrisy to have aspirations that you struggle to meet yourself, so long as you are compassionate with everyone else who struggles with you.

I don’t think of it as a doctrine of imputed righteousness so much as a doctrine of shared responsibility: you are responsible for yourself as well as your followers, and you are responsible for your leaders. As they are responsible for themselves, and also for their followers and teachers, and as your followers are responsible for you and their other leaders, and for their followers, and for themselves. It’s a big net, and we’re all in it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.