Jacob and Eric Garner

Jacob wrestled with a man this week and emerged victorious. His assailant let him go and Jacob’s life was spared. With only a slight limp, he reunited with his family after the unexpected attack.This was not the case for Eric Garner. His assailant was relentless, refusing to let go even as Garner pleaded, “I can’t breathe”. Jacob’s triumph has become a symbol for Jewish survival, while Garner’s plight an all too familiar symbol for black America.

Garner’s death along with the subsequent decision of the Staten Island grand jury to not indict Officer Pantaleo has rightfully caused an uproar among African-American communities across the country. As I watched protesters gathering  around New York City, I wondered why I was not out there with them. Certainly if Garner was Jewish, I would’ve been on the front lines. Something is inherently wrong with that.

Injustice is antithetical to Judaism regardless of the victim’s color or religion. The Torah commands us, “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor… neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” As Jews, we must not stand idly by the blood of just Jewish blood. Eric Garner was my neighbor, a fellow New Yorker. Devaluing any human life diminishes godliness everywhere.

Racism and antisemitism are two sides of the same coin. Senseless hatred endangers us all. The Midrash relates a story of a man drilling a hole under his seat on a boat. When being questioned about his actions he replied, “What concern is it to you? Am I not drilling under my own seat?” The others responded, “But you will flood the boat for all of us.” Injustice will ultimately drown us all.

For years I never connected to the blessing that we say in the Amidah regarding justice and returning the judges of old. Why would I? I’m white and Jewish. After Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner it has taken on an entirely different meaning. This Shabbat I pray that God, “Restore our judges as in former times, and our counselors as at the beginning; and remove from us sorrow and sighing, and reign over us, May You alone, Lord, reign over us with loving-kindness and compassion, and vindicate us in justice.”

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of Base BKLYN in Crown Heights and the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.