07/18/2013 01:29 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Of Guilt and Responsibility: Abraham Joshua Heschel on George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

"Few are guilty, but all are responsible"

In this past week, following the close of the criminal case against George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the question of guilty or not guilty has occupied a primary position. Of course, this question in the context of a prosecution has a technical meaning, specifically geared to the laws of a particular jurisdiction and the actual presentation of evidence by both sides in court. There is no arguing that under due process of law George Zimmerman is not guilty, despite the fact that there are many who feel that this verdict is also a reflection of what is just and many who feel that this verdict is precisely the opposite.

The above quote, however, written by one of the greatest Rabbinical voices of any age, brings our attention to a question that is not only bigger than the four walls of the court, but extends well beyond any discussion about either George Zimmerman's or Trayvon Martin's actions. The quote is from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a man who was born and raised in old world learning, educated in modern philosophy and stationed himself by the side of Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. in the midst of the struggle to renew the promise of his adopted country. These words, often repeated throughout his written works and addresses, originate in The Prophets, Heschel's incisive study of what drove the Bible's pillars of moral teaching and how each generation must renew their charge to form a "community not indifferent to suffering, impatient with cruelty and falsehood, and continually concerned for G*d and every man."

"Few are guilty, but all are responsible" is not a principle that can be applied in a court of law and is not a standard that can or should be enforced by any policy. However, without a recognition of this prophetic call, much of the greater aspirations of our country remain out of reach.

The claim that we are all responsible leads to a lifetime of questions and I believe they are worthwhile to pursue. However, what struck me reading Heschel's quote again after this week is the first part: "few are guilty." In one brilliant stroke Heschel is saying that there are some who willfully cause injury to others because they fail to treat them as fully human, but the vast majority harbor not malice, but insufficient concern. We are not a country made up of racists, in the stark ideological sense of the word, but a society that is still yet to come to grips with how corrosive it is to become indifferent to the lives of those who are regarded as other. A court is a an ill-suited place to look into someone's heart, but our own hearts are the only place to attune ourselves to look out for the well-being of each other. The only way to answer the call for justice.