How the Torah's Teachings Can Help Us Respond to Baltimore and Beyond
“It is dangerous for society to ignore the pain and passion now pouring out of the black community. We had better understand it…for black mistrust isn’t solely the result of an occasional perceived miscarriage of justice…Many…are convinced that there is a national campaign at work to undo whatever progress has occurred in achieving racial justice…And the riots in [our] cities seem to underscore the fact that if a nation fails to resolve the problems of poverty and welfare and unemployment, if it fails to give hope to the disadvantaged, it faces a prospect of mounting pressure and increasing hostility which creates the danger that our democracy itself may prove inadequate.”
The person who wrote those words was Jordan Band, z”l, an attorney and a member of my synagogue, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. When Jordan heard fellow Jews in Cleveland minimizing the despair present among Cleveland’s black leadership in the 1960s, he wrote those words to be sure that Jews were encouraged to lift up, rather than strangle, the hope of black young people in our city.
To write such words and repeat them and discuss them and learn the viewpoints of others takes tremendous savlanut, forbearance, and a keen awareness of what is within one’s power and what is beyond one’s reach.
Jordan’s words have stirred me over these recent months as I watch events unfold as far away as Ferguson, MO, and as near as Cleveland – and last week, as Baltimore erupted in chaotic protest after the death of Freddie Gray. Watching the media coverage and African American leaders’ subsequent criticism of it, I remembered Jordan’s articulation not to stand motionless when leaders we respect cry out in pain. He ultimately warned Jews not to ignore, not to sit on the sidelines.
His message is resonant with the concerns of the composers of the Torah: that lawlessness and chaos cannot and not must rule our lives, any more than inequality and hatefulness should. It seems to me that our ancestors knew the instinct within us to judge unfairly – to tip the scale unfairly toward the left or the right, or to see an opportunity to make money or rise in power due to injustice and bloodshed. In accordance with our prophetic heritage, they spoke out and acted on their words because they realized that so long as there is human life, there will remain an instinct for one human being to emotionally rage and hate against other human beings.
Enter the holiness code, especially the portion in Chapter 19 of Leviticus. This portion is uniquely positioned to speak to the concerns of this moment. It focuses us on ways in which we judge with discernment, act with fairness, and live out an ethical approach to bettering our human condition. A modern interpretation or synthesis of the Chapter 19 of Leviticus in the terms of modern social media, might be, in fact, #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter.
Think about it. What are the key laws of our holiness code?
We are to show reverence for father and mother and love for our neighbors.
We are instructed not to reap from the crops at the edges of our fields but rather allow the vulnerable to gather from those gleanings.
We are reminded not to steal or deal dishonestly, act fraudulently, or withhold a laborers’ wages.
We are forbidden from insulting the deaf, placing stumbling blocks before the blind.
We are instructed to withhold unfair judgments. Don’t show deference to the rich or favor the poor.
We are told not to profit by the blood spilling in your streets. And lo tisnah et achicha bilvavecha, do not hate your brother in your heart.
I know that the hatefulness and sadness we see arising is real. Believe me, as someone who spent the first couple of my years in my rabbinical career working in interfaith settings in Baltimore, I know the desire to call out my shame and avert my eyes to the chaos that erupted last week there. As a rabbi now in Cleveland, I see our city, too, simmering in tension over the recent shooting of Tamir Rice; we are all concerned here about the ramifications of an upcoming verdict in a trial involving a police officer. In a climate such as this one, I wish it were simpler to sort out the challenges affecting our nation's law enforcement community and our responsibilities to them.
That's why we must hear what the Torah teaches: Listen. Learn. Grow your knowledge and listen to multiple viewpoints. Choose discreetly what to say and how to say it, what to do and how to do it. And lo ta’asu avel b’mishpat, for God’s sake, do not render half-cocked, half-thought-through judgments. Don’t draw conclusions while investigations of police and racial injustice while they are underway.
The Torah teaches us to stay alert and to know that all lives matter. Kedoshim tiheyu, all have the possibility to do blessing or curse, to choose life or death. Names like Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, once unknown to us, are now martyred in death. Judaism commands us that our highest obligation and most constructive act is to protect life, to save lives, and to give honor to life. We can do just that.
As we pray each Shabbat, help us to lie down in peace, O God, and to rise up once more to life renewed.
This piece was adapted from a sermon. Read the original piece in full on Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple's blog.