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Stop Snitchin’

Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, had his own code of silence. Like every self-respecting rapper, he understood that squealing signals a breakdown of social cohesion.

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You can have whatever you want
In the hood, it’s do’s and don’ts
So when it get hot in this kitchen
Stop snitchin’, nigga, stop snitchin’
—Ice Cube, “Stop Snitchin’”

The snitch, the snout, the squeal, the stool pigeon—is there a more complicated and compelling character? There he is, in the center of one true-crime drama after another, traitorous and infuriating, on the right side of the law but the wrong side of the story. We upstanding citizens idolize Jesse James but revile his cowardly assassin Robert Ford; we adore Dillinger but despise Anna Sage, the Romanian immigrant who ratted out the legendary gangster in the false hope that she’d be granted a green card in return for her service. Why this animosity toward men and women whose sole transgression was turning to the authorities?

The answer has a lot to do with the conventions of storytelling in general and the crime genre in particular, a genre that has birthed a succession of memorable anti-heroes, from Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. But it may have as much to do with the machinations of human morality: As an ongoing study of snitching suggests, tattling is a far more complex matter than previously believed.

Dr. Rick Frei began The Snitching Study at the Community College of Philadelphia in 2007, when he surveyed residents of the City of Brotherly Love about their attitudes toward telling on each other. The study was largely a response to Stop Snitchin’, a national ersatz campaign that sprang into life in 2004 and featured prominent figures—from rapper Lil’ Wayne to NBA star Carmelo Anthony—cautioning their fans not to cooperate with the police. As is often the case with our quicksilver culture, the campaign was soon cast as yet another controversial battlefield in the never-ending culture wars, with politicians like Boston Mayor Thomas Menino taking such strict measures as ordering all T-shirts emblazoned with the Stop Snitchin’ logo removed from city stores. The majority of media reports portrayed the campaign’s supporters as nihilistic, petulant, and irresponsible. Determined to understand why some people saw snitching as an unpardonable offense while others saw it as a civic duty, Dr. Frei and his students started asking questions.

Their findings are surprising. Above all, they discovered a direct correlation between snitching and initiative: To truly be a snitch, one had to act in one’s own self-interest, knowingly and proactively. While 82.6 percent of respondents said that ratting someone out in order to avoid the consequences of one’s own criminal actions constituted snitching, only 15.8 percent thought that someone submitting to police questioning after witnessing a crime was a snitch.

Such distinctions are far from minor. Taken as a whole, they constitute a serious moral platform, one that values communal cohesion above personal gain. Take, for example, the case of the rapper Cam’ron. A victim of violent crime—he was carjacked and shot at close range—he had refused to identify his shooter to the police. In 2007, he was interviewed by 60 Minutes and asked if he would consider calling the cops if he learned a serial killer had just settled in next door. Cam’ron’s reply—he said he would consider moving but would never dial 911—infuriated pundits and politicians, but it is, in fact, wholly aligned with what many consider to be the foundation for Western morality, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.

Kant’s idea, simply put, is a philosophical principle constructed of three maxims: a person acts morally if his or her behavior would be unconditionally right for anyone else in a similar situation; a person acts morally if he or she treats others not as means to an end but as ends in themselves; and a person acts morally if his or her actions can establish a universal law governing all other similar cases. In other words, we must follow what Kant called “pure practical reason” and pursue actions regardless of incentives but merely because these actions are right in and of themselves. In his interview, Cam’ron was saying more or less the same thing: Snitching was wrong, and even if he himself had much to gain in having his homicidal neighbor arrested, he would rather continue and adhere to the universal code.

Moses would most likely agree. In this week’s parasha, the future leader of the Israelites, rescued from death and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter, is ambling around Egypt. Seeing an Egyptian man striking a fellow Israelite, Moses loses his cool and kills the assailant. The very next day, the parasha tells us, this happens: “He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, ‘Why are you going to strike your friend?’ And he retorted, ‘Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?’ Moses became frightened and said, ‘Indeed, the matter has become known!’ ”

This story, Rashi suggests, can be read on two different levels. Taken literally, it couldn’t be simpler: Breaking up the fight between the two Hebrews, Moses is warned not to intervene lest they inform the authorities of his slaying of the Egyptian man the day before. Fearful, Moses mutters that “the matter has become known,” the matter being his crime. But Rashi digs deeper: In saying “the matter has become known,” he argues, Moses really means that now he understands why the Israelites were condemned to slavery—the wicked Hebrew man beating his brother and threatening to snitch on Moses if he intervened is the embodiment of the moral failures that have propelled God to inflict such a severe punishment on His people.

Like Cam’ron, Moses understands that when people do what’s right for them rather than what is simply right, society slowly crumbles. It’s a principle all of us would do well to recall.

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So, what is right for society, and not for people? As a Romanian in the 50’s and 60’s I have witnessed the most abominable crimes done in the name of the “people”, by someone who decided for us what right, in the name of the communist salvation…

Karl Marx inspired from both Kant and Hegel, and finally he created the Communist Manifesto, with good intentions. You have good intention Liel, but the things are not , IMO, the way you manipulate them

CherylP. says:

I think motive and assessment of the facts, play the largest role in why we would, or would not “snitch” on someone. A person who is a known threat to the people of a society has to be looked at with at least a bit of suspicion. We cannot have child predators, for example, living near a school, or a neighborhood full of children, because experts have told us that these criminals cannot be cured of their illness and will strike again. It is a “no brainer” as to what should be done in that situation, because the predator is in violation of the law, and a time bomb waiting to go off! Each situation is unique; and we cannot always let the “justice of the Universe” take care of all circumstances. We were given brains that allow us to think and reason and assess situations as they arise and take appropriate action. When Jewish people were made the scapegoats in Nazi Germany, and beyond, the rational human being should have been wise enough to know it was vicious, hate driven propaganda, and a ridiculous smear campaign with a destruction of a people as its goal. Citizens were brainwashed to think a people as a whole could be the downfall of a county, and protecting them threatened a removal of their own liberties and comforts if they did not turn in their fellow man; so they would often comply. Something took away their humanity and brought their thinking down to the level of, “it’s either him, or me!”
People were terrorized into losing their objectivity and reason!
We don’t like “snitches” but we do ourselves a great disservice by a blanket application of an ideal, or principle! We have to be judges in our daily lives and understand when it is appropriate to tell on someone or not. We can only hope that we are never the victims of irrational hate ourselves, or lose our own perspective of what is right, or wrong, and advocate harm to others who are actually innocent. Finding the truth can never be wrong!

I wholly agree with you, Miha. It cannot be that a serial killer’s wellbeing is put above community’s assuming it’s not a community of serial killers.

As a secular Jew, my familiarity with this weeks parasha is limited.
I would like to know how the learned readers of this weeks Tablet view
Wilileaks. If Snitchin is for the greater good, how do you think Moses or you would view such action ?
Sy Fort Lee NJ

i feel in my heart that snitchin is alwais been a question of ethics to an individual,within themselves,then to a group.i is alwais questioned my own motive in snitchin,or telling on someone. is it to make myself look good,to look right,or to look like a better human then the ohter person i is snichin on..most times,snitchin’ does’nt help anione,when love is me espressing my concern of another persons espressions ,or actions to them,for it be to help is never done much good for me tell anothers busines to another,for them to be deemed,’les important,or,a more ignorant human then i simpli because of a espression,or action of if this persons’espressions,or actions,effect others,in sum hurtful,or dangerous’way…then it might help me to tel another,or sumone in authoriti,of their actions,if these be violent,or against another persons’life…

Ruth Gutmann says:

Do yourself a favor: look up the Hebrew word Parsha. You will learn that it definitely is not Parasha.

We are civilized people not a bunch of tribal savages. This not snitching out violent crimes and heroin and crack dealers indicates to me that I wasted my time in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s thinking that Jews belong in the same catagory as African-Americans. Hitler had a lasting effect much more than one would imagine.

Ruth Gutmann: I don’t know which version of the Hebrew dictionary you’re using (!!!) but I’ve checked three – they all agree that that it’s parasha.

I have a problem regarding the application of Kant’s view to moral situations,because I think morality and ethics are situational

I think we all realize that Moses had some extraordinary powers that were given to him by G-d. Now what if Moses had used those powers in ways that created fear and distress in another person (which the Moses I know would not)… as an example, let’s say that if Moses were here today and could read minds, or knew what someone was writing or reading on their computer (very possible these days – you can buy the software online), and then he used that information through subtle means to make someone confused, or feel afraid or that they were going to be abandoned by G-d, and the ‘victim’ of that behavior told someone else about it, does that make the ‘victim’ a snitch? Does the so-called snitch have some right to express frustration or anger to another person? Is there not a certain arrogance to wielding that kind of power over others when the correct way to deal with someone is one on one conversation? I believe there is a scripture or two about that …

Another example … say you found something missing in your apartment and a few days later your neighbor told you they saw someone walk into your house matching a description of someone you cared very much about but who lived across the country … then say that person a few days later sent text messages in which they indicated they had been near your town (and that they hated you)… then left a voicemail with a statement that indicated they might have the item missing from your apartment … if you add that information to the police report, does that make you a snitch? Even when it breaks your heart to have to do so?

And is discussing how certain behaviors of other people in your life affected you considered “gossip”?? There is such a fine line between what is ‘snitching’ and what is self-protection … what is lashon hara and what is healthy discussion of your hurts received at the hands of another …

I would really like to get some feedback on this

PS – I don’t think either Abraham or Moses would have behaved in such a manner …

PSS – in both instances, I hadn’t done anything to the people involved that I feel warranted the powerplays in the first instance (other than possibly not agree with their religious ideals) or the label of traitor in the second … I would have sadly reported my own children had they displayed such behavior .. and it was only a report, nothing was FILED against anyone …

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Genesis 2:17

peakman says:

ok how is the authorities supposed to protect its citizens, how can they ever try a case if everybody keeps quiet.

according to you know one can ever be a witness to a crime, report a crime.

BTY I think you need to go back to yeshiva and relearn the basic of halacha

An “enslaved” people living in a foreign land… The Jews living in Egypt may not have been the only folk in history to feel a division between themselves and the agents of law enforcement.

Leibovitz gets the Categorical Imperative completely wrong.
Kant very much did *not* deal with the question of whether or not specific actions were moral or not – in fact, for Kant only motives could be judged, not actions – and he would never have suggested asking whether or not a particular behavior could be the basis for a universal law. Rather, Kant said that in any given case one’s *decision-making process* should be universally applicable. It’s easy to imagine a consistent process that would advocate snitching on the serial killer next door, but not on the advancing Union Army.

Mr. Apikoros says:

Leibovitz makes the distinction between one who snitches in self-interest, i.e., a jailhouse stool pigeon who rats out his fellow con in return for a lighter sentence, and one who reports a crime.

The statistics from the survey he quotes bear this out: 82% would consider someone who drops dime on someone else for personal gain would be deemed a rat, while only 16% believed those who report a crime to the police, or who submit to police questioning to help solve a crime, are snitches.

Whether Leibovitz misinterpreted Kant is a matter for serious discussion. Regardless, Leibovitz isn’t in any way a “criminal,” even though a blogger who fancies himself a “journalist” labels him as such.

Salomo Hanau says:


>Do yourself a favor: look up the Hebrew word Parsha. You will learn that it definitely is not Parasha.

People say “somethin'” but in the dictionary it is “something.” Parasha is grammatically correct, while parsha is the vulgar pronunciation. Nothing wrong with vulgar pronunciations, but it is certainly wrong to call the grammatical pronunciation wrong.

There is a qamatz under the resh, not a sheva nah.

But Rashi digs deeper: In saying “the matter has become known,” he argues, Moses really means that now he understands why the Israelites were condemned to slavery—the wicked Hebrew man beating his brother and threatening to snitch on Moses if he intervened is the embodiment of the moral failures that have propelled God to inflict such a severe punishment on His people.

Like Cam’ron, Moses understands that when people do what’s right for them rather than what is simply right, society slowly crumbles. It’s a principle all of us would do well to recall.
In my children’s high school, they are all expected not to’s the way of the land, even when they know deep down, that they should snitch. When will the tide turn?

cool blog and nice post.

If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?

With all the fluff floating about on the net, it is a prodigious change of estimate to impute to a milieu like yours instead.

I’ve said that least 4423389 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Thanks a lot for the blog article.Really thank you! Really Great.


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Stop Snitchin’

Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, had his own code of silence. Like every self-respecting rapper, he understood that squealing signals a breakdown of social cohesion.

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