America is experiencing another episodic paroxysm; this time triggered by the tragic death of George Floyd, at the hands and knees of a policeman. Most everyone is united in genuine outrage at this dreadful act committed by someone charged with protecting everyone. However, the contrived reaction by some, who committed violent crimes, including assault and battery, homicide, looting and arson, as well as, antisemitic acts, is unjustified and abhorrent.
Justice must be done and, in the case of George Floyd, this appears to be occurring. As to the criminals who perpetrated the other crimes noted above, it seems that in some locales, a conscious effort is being made by some elected officials to minimize or ignore their lawbreaking activities for political reasons. This is indeed unfortunate. Their anarchic and destructive melees were flagrantly displayed on television and it appeared in many locales little or no attempts were made by law enforcement to intervene and stop them. It is reported that this was because of policies or political considerations designed to let protestors vent, without interference, even as a few reprehensible individuals used the protests as a cover or pretext for committing villainous crimes. The net effect was to breed distrust in our government institutions and their ability to enforce the law, which is the bedrock of our society and civilization. Perhaps, this was the insidious intent of a few reprobates reported to have incited and fueled these nefarious activities.
The Bible[i] recognized the need for a system of laws, judges and police. It, thus, commanded[ii] that judges and police be appointed to judge and enforce[iii], respectively, righteous laws. The Talmud[iv] explains that this includes local police in every region and city[v]. The Midrash[vi] adds in every town, as well. Rashi[vii] notes that the police are to be armed so as to be in position to compel obedience to the law. The Midrash[viii] pithily summarizes this ethic, as absent law enforcement officers there are no judges. In essence, our system of laws and justice and by extension society is dependent on having police; it is a foundational element in civilization.
The position of police officer is sacred and revered. To appreciate the sanctity of the role, for a time, it was reserved only to the Levites[ix]. With the investment of authority come duties, as well. Thus, the Talmud[x] enjoins a police officer to be extremely circumspect and careful with the use of force and the weapons at his or her disposal. Tosafot[xi] posits that a law enforcement officer may not cause dread in the community or use excessive force; patience and restraint are required. Those who might flatter themselves by flouting what they imagine to be their own new and enhanced sensitivity to issues of police brutality should consider that these thoughts were penned in the Talmud more than fifteen hundred years ago.
The Talmud[xii] cautions that judges and law enforcement officers must be honest and faithful in the performance of their duties. It describes how the Divine presence will not rest until bad judges and cops are eliminated. These are sacred positions of trust and corruption or malfeasance can’t be tolerated.
The policing function includes not only actually enforcing the law, but also deterring violations. This includes patrolling areas where people gather on the holidays[xiii] and, in general, so as to prevent crimes[xiv]. In this regard, Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk[xv], the Chassidic master, describes how police officers are associated with the good impulse in people. This is because they are able to engage a person before any harm is done. This is unlike a judge who only deals with the crime after the fact. In essence, a police officer’s verbal warnings or even forceful actions can serve to prevent a person from sinning. They are able to provide a wake up call before a wrong is committed and thereby enable a person to reflect on his or her own deficiencies.
Don’t be misled by those purporting to promise heaven on earth by eliminating the police entirely. We live in this world and the Torah prescribes having police officers. Ironically many of the politicians and celebrities touting the myth of no police are personally being protected by police officers or private security. The commandment to appoint police officers is unconditional; as is the requirement they act properly. Holding our public officials to account for their misdeeds is the very essence of justice. However, the movement to defund and eliminate the police is antithetical to our traditions.
We can and should always strive to be better and to play a peaceful role in improving society as a whole. After all, no person is immune from sin and neither are our public servants. Seeking to correct our mistakes is a part of our life mission. We are fortunate to live in a free country where this is possible. The civil rights, equal protection, equal opportunity and other benefits afforded under our system based on rule of law should not be taken for granted. Let’s not destroy it in exchange for a baseless promise of some mythical utopia. The efforts being made by some to undermine and dismantle it do not serve any useful purpose and only cause needless suffering.
May G-d bless and protect the United States of America and the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers, who faithfully and diligently serve us and, as G-d intended, help keep us safe and secure. Defend them; don’t defund them. May true justice triumph and reinforce our trust in and respect for the rule of law. We are united because we care.
[i] Deuteronomy 16:18.
[ii] See also Mishne Torah, The Sanhedrin and the Penalties within their Jurisdiction 1:1.
[iii] Ibid and see Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Rosh, Chizkuni, Ralbag, Daat Zekeinim, Rabbeinu Bachya commentaries thereon. See also Or HaChaim commentary thereon, who notes that having law enforcement officers are a pre-requisite to an effective judicial system.
[iv] BT Sanhedrin 16b.
[v] See also Sifrei, Devarim 16:18.
[vi] Sifrei, Davarim 144:3. See also Rashi commentary on Deuteronomy 16:18.
[vii] Ibid, s.v. Shotrim.
[viii] Midrash Tanchuma, Shoftim 2:1.
[ix] BT Yevamot 86b.
[x] BT Sanhedrin 7b.
[xi] Ibid, Tosafot s.v. Tehei Zariz.
[xii] BT Shabbos 139a.
[xiii] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 529:4.
[xiv] Ibid and see Mishna Brurah 529:22 thereon.
[xv] In his work the Noam Elimelech, Sefer Devarim, Shoftim 1:2.