It was a wrenching week. Shira Banki, a victim of Thursday’s Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade stabbing, died Monday from wounds inflicted by a Haredi man, Yishai Schlissel. Separately, early Friday morning an 18-month-old Muslim baby, Ali Saad Dawabsheh, was burned to death in an arson apparently carried out by Religious Zionist Jewish terrorists.
It goes without saying that our response must be one of outrage and condemnation. We need to yell from the rooftops that these acts of savagery are diametrically opposed to our most deeply-held religious values. Quite frankly, the very need for Jews to speak out against our own regarding the biblical prohibition of murder is sufficient cause for us to hang our heads in shame.
But outrage and embarrassment, while necessary, are not sufficient, and can even distract us from the critically important task at hand.
This past Shabbat, we read of the obligation to designate cities of refuge for the accidental murderer, intended to protect the killer from the victim’s closest of kin. In a few weeks’ time, we will read of the eglah arufah, the ritual in which the Jewish court closest to an unidentified corpse declares, “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Interestingly, Rambam treats these two topics in the same set of laws in his halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah. What motivated Rambam to juxtapose the two categories?
One further observation makes his intention plain: the complete title of this section of Mishneh Torah is “The Laws of a Murderer and the Protection of Life.” The wider theme of this set of laws, then, is not only how to deal with murderers after the fact, but also that we are required to take proactive steps in preventing such atrocities from being carried out in our midst. If the accidental murderer is threatened by the victim’s relative, we must proactively set aside cities of refuge to protect the killer. If a corpse is mysteriously discovered we don’t simply bury the body and move on. Our leadership and community must engage in the introspection necessary to honestly declare that we took every step possible to avoid this tragedy. We must leave no stone unturned in our efforts to avoid violence and preserve innocent human life. Otherwise, the blood is on our hands.
All this might seem important yet distant from American shores. After all, religiously motivated violence is thankfully rare if not unheard of in the American Jewish community. We might argue that this is only an Israeli problem.
This response, however, is too easy. We cannot simply wipe our hands clean and absolve ourselves of responsibility. For while religious violence is not necessarily a burning issue facing the American Jewish community, we must always remember that religious violence all too often begins with bigotry, intolerance, and hate speech. And in that connection, there is much work to be done.
What, for example, is our response to the racist or homophobic talk that is still not unheard of in our communities? Do we consider the pain, suffering, and still-dramatically increased suicide rates for homosexuals who grow up in traditional communities? Do we simply ignore such conversation or do we clearly call out such behavior as despicable and unacceptable?
Or take another hypothetical scenario. The Modern Orthodox community is highly attuned to national politics, especially as it concerns Israel policy. What would we do if, in connection with the Iran agreement, we were to encounter hate talk about a particular politician or political party? Would we just move on, perhaps with a the addition of some “kiddush talk,” or would we take the necessary steps to declare such talk completely out of bounds?
In a rather different vein, what of the cyberbullying that American teenagers and college students struggle with on a regular basis, and which inevitably impacts our children as well? Or the age-old teasing and bullying we see in our schools and on our playgrounds? Do we simply tell our children “It’s just how kids are” or do we partner with our schools and shuls to do our part to make sure our kids are as safe as they can be?
These scenarios are quite real for us. There remains bigotry in the American Jewish community. Politics can lead to passionate and sometimes inflammatory talk. We all know that bullying can lead directly to tragedy, especially for young people. These theoretical instances demand proactive behavior on our part to foster safe, humane communities.
In this case, we get off relatively easy. Our community did not spawn these despicable murders. And yet, it’s not enough to denounce such violence and move on. There is real, difficult work to be done. It’s not always easy to be utterly intolerant of intolerance, but that’s precisely what the Torah demands that we do.
Hopefully, we will not experience such violence again, and certainly not on American soil. But if we ever do, hopefully we will be able to say that we did everything we could to proactively combat bigotry and hate. Then, and only then, will we be able to declare honestly, “Our hands did not spill this blood.”