Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)

One of the most important and yet neglected ethical proscriptions of the Torah is the famous passage, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:4). Talmudic tradition stresses the importance of not taking advantage of another person’s ignorance. Thus, we find: “ How do we know that one should not hold out a cup of wine to a Nazirite  or a limb from a living animal to a Noahide? From Scripture, which says, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.”

The point of this law teaches us that nobody should prey upon the weaknesses or flaws of another human being by taking advantage of that person’s ignorance. Based on this injunction, rabbinic tradition teaches that there must be truth in advertising. Beyond that, weapons should not be sold to people unless it is for the express purpose of self-defense. In addition, one should not even offer bad advice—especially if the person who is giving it stands to gain from  it. An example of this might be someone who is trying to persuade a neighbor to sell his house so that he will get rid of them.

Scriptures further admonishes the citizen, “You shall fear your God.”  Rabbinic expositors note that this warning seems especially appropriate for offenses that cannot be detected and that, therefore, are readily concealed. The deaf cannot hear what is being said about them, and the blind cannot see who causes them to stumble. However, God sees and hears on their behalf and will punish their tormentors.

Both Jewish and Christian tradition stress the importance of not asking God not to bring us to temptation, “Our Father who art in Heaven… Thy will be done … lead us not into temptation” (Mathew 6:13). Jesus’ prayer is reminiscent of a passage mentioned in the Talmud which teaches that no person should never intentionally bring oneself to temptation, for if David could succumb to temptation, how much more could lesser mortals![1]

Moral people need to be aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses. Failure to recognize these flaws will prove injurious to one’s health or happiness.  The Sages teach in the Mishnah, “Never be sure of yourself until the day of your death.” Yet, as a good Catholic friend once taught me, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” Just because we made mistakes in the past, doesn’t mean we can’t become better people–despite ourselves. Knowing our fragility as human beings is the key to our personal salvation and eventual character transformation.

The Question of Entrapment and Jewish Ethics

As one newspaper columnist recently wrote:

Lord, let me not be tested

And let me not be detested…

I would add one more line:

By getting myself arrested!

A common question that has great relevance to our topic of not putting a stumbling block before the blind is the matter of entrapment. Should government officials or law enforcers tempt honest citizens with forbidden goods?

The answer is not as black and white as it might seem. It is one matter to offer drugs or alcohol to a person who is struggling to overcome an addiction. It is quite another matter to tempt a person who poses a potential danger to society, e.g., a potential terrorist, or a pedophile. In such cases, public safety demands that its law enforcement utilize the means to keep innocents from harm’s way. On the other hand, posing as a prostitute  in order to ensnare people who are weak-willed certainly resembles the biblical prescription the Torah is speaking about. When government selectively targets people who have no prior record of wrongful doing, Leviticus 19:4 warns us that it is not our place to expose good citizens to temptation in order to arrest them. Speed traps on the road is an interesting question, and I will have to think more about that–especially since I got personally caught in one!

One leading Halachic scholar of the late 20th century, R. Moshe Feinstein, makes an important point that is relevant to our discussion:  If someone enables another person to violate a transgression, the severity of the violation of  “placing a stumbling block before the blind” in some ways becomes as severe as the actual transgression that he enabled the “blind person” to perform.[2]

One could argue that enabling a person to yield to temptation is morally worse, since the person instigating the would-be offender, knows what he is doing is ethically wrong. Consciously enabling someone to sin, puts one in the category of an enticer–the most famous enticer was the Edenic serpent who caused our ancestors to lose Paradise.

And now you know the rest of the story!

[1] T.B. Sanhedrin 107a.

[2] Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 1:3.

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