Ask the Rabbis | Is Silence Consent?
On the one hand, we have the Talmudic legal adage: “Silence is like a confession” (Bavli, Yevamot 87b). This clearly applies to an instance of legal adjudication, where the silence of the accused could imply confirmation of the charges. On the other hand, silence can be misconstrued as consent when we fail to speak up in protest when something harmful is being said or done (Shabbat 33a). On the third hand, silence is certainly not indicative of consent in regard to inappropriate contact or sexual advances—even with one’s own spouse (Eruvin 100b). Bottom line, outside the interrogation room and public demonstrations, silence should never be interpreted as consent unless accompanied by a clear gesture indicating that consent.
In the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony, for example, the bride is silent. And although it is the groom who declares her betrothal to him, his declaration is void until and unless the bride indicates consent by a gesture of willful receipt of the token accompanying the declaration, whether a ring or a mule. Without her explicit acceptance, there is no marriage. Her silence is her consent, but only because of her action, which—in this case—speaks louder than words (Kiddushin 3b).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Jewish Chaplain, Patton State Hospital
On a recent trip through Breezewood, PA, my husband and I stopped at a gas station. While he filled the tank, I went into the shop. The older man at the counter greeted me, glanced at some shelves of energy boosters and cigarettes, then said, “Nah, that’s the stuff for the Mexicans and the blacks. Lemme take you to the white man’s section.” I was shocked. I stood there for a moment, silent, and then I walked out. In that situation, maybe it was the right choice, but it was also the easy one.
The ease with which people ignore injustice likely prompted the Torah’s admonition, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). Jews are plenty aware of the consequences of silence while our blood was shed, and we denounce the silent as complicit, their inaction as assent. I did not assent to the words of that racist, but he never knew that. And while I continue to believe that silence was the right choice in that context, I am bothered by how much easier it was than confrontation. Turning away from injustice and hate is always easier. Yet where there is silence, or ease, there will never be justice. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.”
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for
Farmington Hills, MI
Our tradition has an ambivalent relationship with silence. Silence in the face of loss or great pain is frequently lauded, as when Aaron responded to the death of his two sons with silence—perhaps a form of acquiescence or consent to God’s will. But silence in the face of injustice or impending catastrophe is a mark of complicity and cowardice—as in the book of Esther, where Mordecai reminds the queen, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14).
Does silence always imply consent? In matters of betrothal and divorce, a prime rabbinic principle is that women must give consent. But how do you know when consent occurs if it is not verbalized? In the Talmud (Kiddushin 13a), the rabbis wrestle with cases where a man gives something to a woman with the intention of betrothing her, but she is silent. Has she consented or not? Does she want the marriage or just the item he’s giving her—or even feel that the item belonged to her in the first place? In a passage eerily reminiscent of our modern #MeToo debates, Rav Nachman wades into the issue: “If we say that ‘She wanted’ means that she said yes, and ‘She did not want’ means that she explicitly said no, it can be inferred that if she was silent it is a valid betrothal.” That’s not the final answer; the rabbis evidently felt that the woman’s intention could be deduced only by the particulars of the case at hand. You or I might say, just ask her what she intended! But that’s the point—women’s agency was limited, women’s speech was often demeaned as frivolous and women were not generally allowed to testify as witnesses.
And then there is shalom bayit—women keeping silent for the sake of peace in the household. Perhaps the most chilling case of such demanded silence is found in the biblical tale of Tamar’s rape (2 Samuel 13:20). After discovering what his half-brother Amnon has done, Absalom tells Tamar, “For the present, sister, keep quiet about it; he is your brother. Don’t brood over the matter.” Absalom means to avenge his sister’s rape, which he does two years later by murdering Amnon—but his admonition to Tamar to keep silent adds insult to injury, and indeed silences his sister; we never hear Tamar’s voice again.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
For those with relative power, yes, silence is consent. But not so for those oppressed. A woman sexually assaulted in the field was innocent (Deuteronomy 22:23-27), since her cries wouldn’t be heard; yet in the densely populated city, her perceived silence equaled presumed consent. We now know that women, children and minorities are often socialized or coerced not to cry out—and when they do cry, even loudly, in the public sphere, they often go “unheard.” Some powerful people prey, but many enable; the silence of the enablers and witnesses is absolutely consent. Such harassment and hurt relies on the fearful silence of victims and potential allies. We must ensure that disempowered voices get heard.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1972 of his involvement in the peace movement that “the Prophets sought to convey…that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself; that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” To the extent that we are free and empowered, we can (and must!) address sexism and misogyny—and racism, xenophobia, ecological catastrophe, attacks on democracy. When we’re silent, we signal consent, even complicity. But the solution has been with us since Exodus: Empower everyone, and act up.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
In the words of Pete Seeger, as inspired by Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.” Silence has its time and its place, as do speaking up and speaking out.
Our Jewish tradition values silence—for reflection, for finding calm and stillness, for giving an attentive ear to others’ words. At the same time, our tradition values using one’s voice and requires us to be discriminating with our words. We can offer constructive criticism, yet we should refrain from slander, gossip and falsehoods, as those tend to be harmful rather than helpful.
Yet when it comes to matters of wrongdoing, sin or injustice, we have an obligation to speak. The Babylonian Talmud teaches that if we can prevent members of our own households, our fellow citizens or even the whole world from sin or acts of injustice, and we do not prevent those from happening, then we too will be punished. Our silence might not only lead to others’ harm but to our own as well. In this instance, silence is more than consent; it becomes complicity.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Shtika k’hoda’a (“Silence is tantamount to agreement”) (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 37b). When we remain silent, our wordlessness speaks for us and, like it or not, is regarded as implied consent. It is tempting to immediately think about the Holocaust and to blame all those individuals who stood by as the Nazis and their collaborators tyrannized and ultimately murdered millions of innocent people.
I have another way of thinking about silence, which I attribute to my late father, Dr. Silas Wallk. My dad urged his four children to have the courage to allow their conscience to guide them. He challenged us to wrestle with societal problems, even if those around us did not. Quoting earlier authors, he used to say that the “only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”
This idea applies to all of us. For me, it is about making sure my teaching and preaching reflect my moral conscience, not being afraid of what others might think. For others, it might mean not remaining silent at a fraternity party, or during a heated discussion on campus, or challenging a disturbing norm in the workplace. Ultimately, we must all remember that when we fail to speak up for someone, or something, we become accomplices—without ever opening our mouths.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
It all depends on the context. In the Talmud, when a charge is made against a person, if they do not deny it but fall silent, then silence is considered an admission of guilt. By contrast, in a sexual interaction between two people in our time and culture, the emerging consensus is that silence is not consent, and an affirmative statement from both is needed to proceed.
If persecution or a crime is being committed, bystanders must speak up or act against the evildoer. During the Holocaust, the Jewish survival rate in different countries varied from 5 to 95 percent. The differences grew directly out of the behavior of the bystanders. Widespread, active collaboration with the Nazis led to 90-percent-plus death rates in Poland and Lithuania. Widespread, active rescue activity led to survival rates of more than 95 percent in Denmark and Bulgaria.
The silence of the Allies and of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (and Stalin’s failure to report to Russian Jews the total Nazi assault on them) raised the death rates. That silence constituted consent to the annihilation of European Jewry. As Elie Wiesel said, silence always aids the evildoers and never the victims.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Absolutely yes! Some of the time. Unless… It’s a huge halachic topic. The Talmud is unambiguous in stating that silence implies complicity. This applies to the indiscretions of large groups of people and also to transgressions by individuals. The biblical commandment “You shall surely rebuke” (Leviticus 19:17) has different applications before and after a misdeed is witnessed, precisely so that the onlooker’s silence should not be taken as approval. When a misdeed is being contemplated but has not occurred, protest is required even when it is clear that it will change no one’s action—but this is not true of the obligation to rebuke after a transgression. And sometimes silence is mandated, as when it becomes clear after an initial rebuke that pressing the issue will lead to bitterness and enmity.
Besides the halachic mandates to speak up, however, there is another obligation that flows from what is supposed to be our fundamental human nature. The midrash teaches that three people counseled Pharaoh in his decree to murder the male Israelite babies: Balaam, Jethro and Job. The first approved; the second protested and had to flee Pharaoh’s wrath. Job remained silent and suffered all of his tragedies because of it. The Brisker Rov (Yitzchok Soloveitchik) questioned this. After seeing that Jethro’s protest got nowhere and endangered his life, the Rov asked, what was wrong with Job’s remaining silent? “Because,” he famously answered, “when something hurts, we scream.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
If I am the one accused, assaulted or attacked, my silence or inaction is not necessarily consent. I might choose not to respond because I am overpowered or because I know the accuser is entrenched in his position and that keeping quiet is a better option than fighting endlessly. However, if a simple denial will help, but is withheld, then that silence is consent. For example, if one is being sued for an alleged debt and does not respond, Jewish law dictates that he must pay the debt, because he could have denied the allegation (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia, 37b).
Silence is also consent when someone else is the victim, unless those present are unable to speak or act. The Torah states that one should not stand idly by when someone is being hurt (Leviticus 19:16). Those who witness or know of domestic abuse, harassment, corruption, mismanagement, bullying and all other forms in which people harm others, yet keep quiet, are giving their consent, committing the sin defined by the Talmud as “being able to protest yet failing to do so” (Sanhedrin 103a). The Talmud even attributes the destruction of the Temple to the acquiescence of the Sages to the public humiliation of a man mistakenly invited to a party (Gittin 56a).
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Silence can be two different things. Sometimes golden, sometimes unfortunate. Always relevant.
When something ugly happens and no one says anything, catastrophe follows. Such is the case of how our ancient Holy Temple was destroyed. Rabbis said nothing at a huge feast, we are told, when someone was humiliated publicly, and with the rabbinical silence, it appeared they were in agreement. On the other hand, when the biblical Aaron was in deep grief over the sad and sudden death of his sons, he was silent.
There are times we must accept the will of the Almighty and search ourselves rather than speak, and there are other times when we see injustice and must speak as loudly and mightily as we can. To have the greatest impact, though, we must first speak loudly and clearly to ourselves, clarify our motives and then proceed accordingly. And sometimes the unsaid word can save the day, the situation, the larger society.
Silence in the face of injustice is acquiescence. A powerful protest, purely motivated, can change a lot, sometimes the world. A comfortable silence can see the Temple destroyed. The analogies are ever present and numerous. We face this choice every day.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch