Q. There are some street youths in my neighborhood who really create a nuisance. If everybody would stand up and insist that they behave it might have an effect, but sometimes I think it's safest just not to get involved. Don't wrongdoers have responsibility for their own acts?
A. Fundamentally, Judaism instructs us to take responsibility for instructing others. The Torah commands us, "Surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him" (Leviticus 19:17). Of course our sages emphasize that this commandment has to be fulfilled in a gentle and thoughtful manner – to improve, rather than to reprove. Maimonides writes, "You should reprove him in private, and speak to him gently and in a soft voice, explaining that you only intend for his own benefit". (1)
And the Talmud tells us that when we refrain from doing so, we share in responsibility for wrongdoing: "Anyone who is able to protest the members of his household and doesn't protest, is liable for the members of his household; the people of his city, he is liable for the people of his city; the whole world, he is liable for the whole world." (2)
This approach is based on two basic axioms of Judaism: first of all, we believe that human beings are basically good and susceptible of improvement. We don't believe that a wrongdoer is incorrigible or inherently wicked or antisocial. Scripture tells us that "God created man straight" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Furthermore, we recognize that each person has responsibility for his fellow man's well being; thus, if we are able to help our fellow improve his ways we are responsible for doing so. The Talmud asserts that "All Israel are responsible for each other", (3), and the quote above shows that this responsibility extends ultimately to all mankind.
But we also find many cases in which our sages advised us that a passive approach is the wisest. Sometimes it is wisest because reproof is counterproductive; it is first necessary to establish friendly relations with someone before your advice has any impact. The Talmud tells the story of Rebbe Zeira who befriended the toughs of his neighborhood, instead of fighting them. Rebbe Zeira's colleagues were opposed to his approach, but in the end it was vindicated when they repented of their ways due to his heartfelt concern. (4) A similar story is told of the great sage Rebbe Meir, who wanted to oppose the bullies of his neighborhood but was persuaded by his wife to take a gentler approach. (5)
This is really a corollary of the quote above. A person is responsible for others behavior only if he "is able to protest" in an effective way.
In other cases a cautious approach is required because of danger. The Shulchan Arukh (comprehensive Code of Jewish Law) tells us: "Even though a person is obligated to reprove wrongdoers, and anyone who refrains from protesting shares responsibility for the sin, one is not obligated to suffer a loss for this. Therefore, it is customary to avoid protesting wrongdoers when we are afraid they may harm our selves or our possessions." (6)
If you are able to politely approach some of these youngsters and explain your concern, then you should certainly do so. If you think that this will be counterproductive, you should do your best to maintain a pleasant demeanor and hope that you will be having a constructive influence. But if you are worried that any criticism on your part will expose you to hostility, then you are justified in refraining from acting alone. Perhaps there is a possibility of working within the framework of community groups, or through civil servants such as police, social workers, or youth counselors.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides' Code, Deot 6:7. (2) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b. (3) Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a. (4) Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a (5) Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 10a. (6) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 334:48 in Rema.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.