Bystander Effect: Tu B’Av and Kitty Genovese

Today we celebrate Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is one of the happiest days of the year. But what are we celebrating? The Gemara shares six historical events that happened on this day.  The second one shared is particularly interesting to me. There we read:

Rabba Bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rav Yochanan: The Tribe of Benjamin was allowed to remarry into K’hal Yisroel after the incident of Pilegesh B’Givah. This occurred on the 15th and signified once again the unity of Israel. (Bava Basra 121a-b and Taanit 30b-31a)

But what is the incident of Pilegesh B’Givah? 

In Judges 19, a Levite’s pilegesh, concubine, leaves him to return home to Bethlehem. After four months, her husband visits her father’s home and attempts to persuade her to return with him. On the fifth day, the concubine leaves with this Levite man. They travel together to Givah, looking for a place to spend the night. An old man sees her and the Levite hanging out in the square. He invites them to spend the night at his home. While there, the perverse men of the city pound on the door requesting the old man to bring out the Levite in order to have sex with him. When the old man offers his virgin daughter and the concubine instead, they refuse. The Levite then forces his concubine into the hands of the mob. She is beaten and raped throughout the night. In the morning, the concubine is found by the Levite on the doorstep of the old man’s house. He tells her to get up and when there is no reply, he places her on the back of his donkey and travels home. Upon arrival, he takes a knife and cuts the concubine’s body into twelve pieces, sending the parts out through the land of Israel. The outraged tribes of Israel sought justice and asked for the miscreants to be delivered for judgment. The Benjamites refused, so the tribes then sought vengeance, and in the subsequent war.

It is noteworthy that when the Levite finds the pilegesh in the morning, it is unclear whether she is dead, as there is no reply. Even though the story is centered around a woman, she never speaks and is nameless. Her life and death are defined by the voices of men around her. It is evident that the victimized woman has no voice. In this context, there is an eerie echo of this case and the case of Kitty Genovese.

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside the apartment building across the street from where she lived in an apartment in Queens. Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or came to her aid. The incident prompted inquiries into what became known as the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome”, and the murder became a staple of American psychology textbooks.

The bystander effect is a social psychological claim that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguitygroup cohesiveness, and diffusion of responsibility that reinforces mutual denial of a situation’s severity. In the cases of Kitty Genovese and Pilegesh B’Givah we see this bystander effect. Sending her parts around the country served as a wakeup call to the entire nation. In the words of Rabbi A.J. Heschel when he said, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” Tu B’Av needs to be a day in which we commit to hearing everyone’s voice, no one should be silenced. It is also a day of reconciliation with the tribe of Benjamin. To this ends, we experience true joy because we all take responsibility.



1 Response to “Bystander Effect: Tu B’Av and Kitty Genovese”

  1. 1 Tu B’Av and End of Summer: 22 for 2 Club | Said to Myself Trackback on August 5, 2020 at 8:52 am

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