Justice, Justice: Responding to Minneapolis and Its Aftermath

Regardless of background or beliefs, all decent, moral human beings are sickened, disgusted and angry at the needless killing of George Floyd last week by a Minneapolis police officer, as well as to the killing of David Patrick Underwood, another African American man, shot in a drive-by while guarding a Federal building. Over the past week and a half, responses of righteous outrage to Mr. Floyd’s killing t have taken the form of peaceful protests, condemnation from law-enforcement and leaders on both sides of the political spectrum, op-ed pieces and a gazillion comments on social media.

As Jews, we know all too well what it means to be on the receiving end of persecution. Only last year 12 of our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh were murdered in a synagogue, simply because they were Jews. Therefore, we have a heightened empathy for those who are also targets of undeserved discrimination—which is why we too must be among those who protest and call out this injustice.

But as Jews, we also have a responsibility to protest the other evils and injustices perpetrated during this entire ugly episode. Unfortunately, from their statements issued in response to the events in Minneapolis, some Jewish organizations have intentionally chosen to engage in “selective” justice, refusing to protest these other evils. I’m referring to the widespread vandalism, the burning and damage of buildings (including churches and several synagogues; no mosques), the looting of stores and businesses, and the violence done to innocent bystanders who have tried to stop those responsible for these crimes. The fact that people with opposing political views all agree that the killing of George Floyd was heinous and the officer responsible needed to be prosecuted—all of this doesn’t matter to those who are bent on creating mayhem. Those people and their actions need to be condemned not just as “unacceptable” or “counterproductive”. Like murder, it needs to be called what it is: evil. But many of our organizations have chosen not to do so.

Our tradition condemns racism and the taking of innocent life. In addition to condemning and prohibiting looting (“Thou shalt not steal”), it also prohibits and condemns the wanton destruction of property. In Jewish law, this prohibition is called bal tashchit (do not destroy). Its biblical source is Deuteronomy 20: 19-20. Although the biblical context refers to the cutting down of fruit trees to assist in a siege during wartime, Rabbinic law expanded the prohibition to include other forms of senseless damage or waste.

Moreover, Jewish Law is emphatic that that responses to, and punishment of any crime must be legal and appropriately proportionate. In matters of law and morality, passion and anger must not be allowed to eclipse temperance and reason. This is the authentic meaning of the Torah’s injunction “eye for eye”. Rather than the conventional (mis)understanding that it sanctions vengeance, it is a mandate for proportionality: if you strike me for no other reason than you don’t like me, I do not have the right to kill you and your entire family, just because I’m angry. My anger does not justify my overreacting. To be sure, we have seen over the past days what happens when this mandate is totally ignored.

No one argues that murder is a greater sin than the wanton destruction of property. But in Jewish Tradition, both are sinful acts and therefore committing a lesser sin in response to a greater sin is also a sin. A response that focuses on the greater sin, while ignoring or contextualizing the lesser sin is not, by Torah law, a just response. That’s why the biblical phrase justice, justice you shall pursue is understood to teach that there is no real justice if it is pursued through unjust means.

The Talmudic Sages taught that if G-d ruled the world through the attribute of Justice alone, the world could not exist. And, if G-d ruled the world through the attribute of Compassion alone, the world could not exist. There must always be a proper balance of justice and compassion.

That is the challenge we Americans face today: creating a proper balance of maintaining moral accountability, while responding to the legitimate plight of the poor and disadvantaged. The Torah is adamant that judges must not pervert judgement, respect persons or take bribes (Deut. 16:19). But, as Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutno taught, in matters of judgment, one must be extra careful: even the tears of a widow can seductively become a bribe.

Judaism teaches that the world is broken and our behavior—individually and collectively– is crucial to its redemption. This is the tenet of tikkun olam/repairing the world. Vandalism, looting and burning—in addition to the unwarranted taking of human life– are never constructive.

When we engage in selective justice by winking at nihilism, we do not do justice to the Torah.

About the Author
Cary Kozberg is a rabbi who has served in congregations, Hillel, and health care chaplaincy. He is currently rabbi of Temple Sholom in Springfield, Ohio