I have spoken before about what a stunning reform Biblical law was compared to the law codes of surrounding cultures. For example, the law applied equally regardless of social class; whether one was the child of a tribal chieftain or of a hewer of wood, the law was the same. There was no capital punishment for property crimes as compared to the hanging of horse thieves in our own country in the nineteenth century. The law was the same applied to the native born Israelite or the foreigner in the land.
There was a concern for equality in justice under an impartial law. It is true that justice is difficult to achieve; this is why, as my Friend David Evan Marcus points out, we are commanded to pursue justice rather than to do justice. None-the-less, we must do our best to achieve justice, though we may frequently fall short.
We have a problem in our country. Our laws are in agreement with these Biblical principles, but the outcomes we see do not always seem to conform to the intent of the law or the spirit of justice. When I was a boy, I had friends who shoplifted. I did not approve, but no one would have thought that they deserved to be summarily executed for a minor property crime. I know people who pay workmen off of the books, but I doubt anyone believes that such tax offences are deserving of death by suffocation.
I am obviously speaking about the recent cases of young black men being killed by police that are so much in the news lately. The case, that is getting less play, that infuriates me every time I think of it, is the shooting of a 12 year old boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing with a pellet gun in a park when he was shot by a police officer who took no time to even consider or assess the situation. My friends and I played with realistic looking guns as children. I doubt any officer would have felt the need to leap out of a squad car and shoot dead a middle class white kid without finding out what was going on.
This last case shows most clearly a major problem. There was no attempt to de-escalate the situation, or even to determine what was really going on. I have seen plenty of times where police calmly talk down white men waving around automatic weapons without resorting to deadly force. I have found myself shopping for food beside white men with pistols strapped to their hips. Why were there no panicked calls for police intervention?
The statistics would indicate that black men are disproportionately the victims of police homicides. This is also seen in drugs arrests. While the proportion of the population using illegal drugs is the same in both white and black populations, far more black people are arrested for drug offences in proportion to their population.
The poison of race prejudice is deep in the American psyche. Even those of us with a clear intellectual rejection of racism and a moral abhorrence for prejudice, will sometimes have a visceral response to racial cues. If you think that the overwhelming images of years of popular culture about race and the inherent dangers of black men will not affect a prepared mind, consider the generations of Jewish women getting nose jobs because they had bought into the beauty myths of the dominant culture. And, even among people who say they like Jews, the stories of our stereotypical traits pass easily from between smiling lips.
We may know in our souls that each human being is at their core a being of imperishable light, created in the image of The Most High, but psychological research indicates that we do not always go to that place first in our interracial encounters.
What we can do as individuals is up to each of us. We are all in different places and different situations. Our opportunities to reach across racial lines will vary. Our attempts to shake our unconscious prejudices and, at times, to essentialize the other, is something that takes conscious effort and reflection.
What we must do, as individuals and as a religious community, to insure that the innocent and those guilty of only the most minor transgressions are not subjected to excessive force and, even, death. It our responsibility as heirs to the tradition of the Bible. This does not mean running down police officers, who often risk their lives to protect other people. It means insisting on proper training and procedures. It means insisting that those who violate that training and those procedures be punished.
We, as Jews, can comfortably pass. But there was a time we were required to wear distinctive cloths so that everyone knew who to harass and of whom to be beware. More recently, when people figured out someone was Jewish, certain doors would suddenly close. We, as Jews, have a special responsibility to make sure that people are not discriminated against because of who they are. A child should not have to fear playing in a park. The parents of black children shouldn’t have to tell them how to be extra polite to police so that they do not get shot.
This is not politics, this is a moral and ethical imperative implicit in the commandment that we pursue justice. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”