Human life is so sacred that Jewish tradition is famously reticent about criminal punishment in general and capital punishment in particular. Thus, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said, “If we would have been on the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been executed” (Mishnah Makkot 1:17). To be tried criminally, Jewish law requires that a perpetrator acknowledge the warning of two witnesses about the consequences of their crime (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:1). Is such a thing ever possible?
And yet, shockingly, Officer Derek Chauvin could be tried even in a Jewish court for the murder of George Floyd, as video shows witnesses warned the police officers as they persisted in their violence. In a case of such brutal and heartless violence, do we really need a source sheet?
To even wonder what the Torah might say about the tragic killings and unnecessary deaths of people of color is an insult to the Torah and to our innate moral compass. To know that recklessness with human life is a trespass: ‘go read in nursery school’ (Sanhedrin 33b). The Torah leaves us no doubt as to where it stands on such violence.
And yet, it seems that in these terrible times, when matters of life and death are playing out before our eyes, we must indeed return to where everything begins — with the creation of the first human in the Divine image.
Says the mishnah in Sanhedrin:
“For this reason, the person was created individually in the world,
to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture considers that person as though they had destroyed a complete world;
and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes [merit] to that person as though they had preserved a complete world.”
— (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, Munich, Parma and Kaufman Manuscripts)
Whether it is the tragic killing of innocent men such as George Floyd and Iyad Halak, or even the execution of murderers sentenced with capital punishment, each destroys an entire universe. The Jewish tradition implores us to internalize that, and respond accordingly.
It is not coincidental that the same mishnah that declares the infinite worth of every individual continues to address the larger underlying problem of our current crisis, the structural racism and internalized prejudice that afflicts our society and facilitates these tragic losses. The mishnah continues:
“And for the sake of peace among creatures,
that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than yours.’”
— (Sanhedrin 4:5)
On an intellectual level, our common origin and deep equality goes without saying. And yet, this mishnah is so resonant right now because when push comes to shove, in the heat of the moment, our intellect betrays us. Despite our best intentions, white people, including most Jews, identify with people who look like us, and are scared of others. All people are equal, but some of us cannot help but think that we are more equal than others. In order to banish the alienation and fear that has facilitated institutionalized racism, all of us, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Americans, and white people in alliance with people of color need to work together to anchor down simple truths.
The Torah commands: Love your fellow as yourself (Lev. 19:18). And as Maimonides teaches, that love must translate into action (Mishneh Torah, Mourning 14:1). But, as Nachmanides points out, what we know to be true intellectually does not always follow through to our deepest levels of self:
The phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” is an exaggeration, since the heart of a person will not accept that they love their fellow as they love themselves. Moreover, Rabbi Akiva has already taught (Bava Metzia 62), “Your life comes before the life of your fellow.”
— (Ramban Lev. 19:17)
Why does our understanding of an individual’s infinite worth fail us time after time? Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, the Pahad Yitzchak, explains that our inability to really love our fellow as ourselves is a symptom of our failure to grasp that we are all descendants of the first human; brothers and sisters, part and parcel of a single organism:
The truth of the matter is that this equation of love for one’s fellow to love for oneself is utterly impossible except in a time when our family tree is open before us, truly revealed with total clarity, connecting us directly to Adam haRishon (literally, the First Person) who was created singularly.
— Pahad Yitzhak, Shavuot 21)
What gets in the way of this understanding? Fear of our own mortality, claims the Pahad Yitzchak. That fear undermines our sense of self-worth, and deprives us of the ability to see both the infinite value of the individual opposite us as well as our deep connection to one another. Research has shown just how deep-seated our fear of those we perceive as “other” is, and how white people can channel their fear towards Black men with tragically lethal consequences. And the price is terrible even when it is not lethal, as my friend and former student, David Ben Moshe, wrote powerfully this week.
In Parshat Shlach, read last week in Israel and this week in the rest of the world, we see the grave cost of not fulfilling our potential because of fear and mistrust. After crossing the desert, Moses sent spies into the Land of Israel to tell the people what to expect. The spies found that it was beautiful, but they were terrified, telling tales of giants inhabiting the land; they refused to trust in Divine protection and recommended turning back. Compared to the powerful inhabitants, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we looked to them” (Numbers 13:33). In truth, the spies had no idea how they were perceived by the inhabitants, but their own fear created a reality — they “became as grasshoppers.” Instead of fulfilling their destiny, an entire generation was forbidden entry to the Promised Land and lost in the desert.
As we protest now, we have the opportunity to write a different ending. The mishnah and the Pahad Yitzhak tell us that we are all part of a whole with a single common origin — but they also point towards our shared responsibility and destiny. It is a long haul, but let us act and pray to transform these weeks into birth pangs in our journey to overcome our fears and suspicions of “the “other,” and in doing so, create a new reality based on equality for the good of our common future.
Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy is a senior member of the faculty at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.