Millions of us waited anxiously this past Tuesday while the jury for the trial of the murder of George Floyd deliberated over its decision. When the judge read aloud the guilty verdicts against Derek Chauvin the relief was palpable across the country and beyond. In this crucial moment, justice had in fact been served. The evidence of our eyes, the video of Chauvin’s cruel disregard for the life of George Floyd, overcame the racist biases embedded in our society that so often lead to justice being denied to African Americans. The verdict was a rare rebuke of police misconduct. For as we know, more Black men died at the hands of police even while the trial was in session. An unarmed Daunte Wright was fatally shot by police mere miles from the Minneapolis courthouse where Derek Chauvin was being prosecuted. Still, this was a moment of hope, a moment to salute the possibility of genuine accountability in our justice system.
Some 3,000 years ago, the tribes of Israel proclaimed a revolutionary concept: justice should be an objective standard that applies equally to all, regardless of station. No one was above justice, not even the king, for justice resided even above the king’s throne, at the heavenly throne itself. Based on their traumatic experience as slaves under Pharaoh’s tyranny, the Israelites set an unprecedented standard for their own emerging society: they would pursue justice for everyone in their community, king or commoner, landowner or peasant, citizen or foreigner. This pursuit of justice is still the clarion call of Judaism. Justice is the DNA of our moral code.
Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, most famously declares, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev, 19:18) But what does that mean, to love? To understand what our Torah means by “love,” we must examine the verses leading up to this declaration. (You will note that in the passages below I have translated “neighbor” as “fellow citizen.” This reflects my understanding of the intention of the Torah – I will write more about that in a future essay.)
לֹא־תַעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֙וֶל֙ בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א פְנֵי־דָ֔ל וְלֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר פְּנֵ֣י גָד֑וֹל בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ׃
Do not pervert justice. Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the powerful; rather, judge your fellow citizen fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)
Love demands justice and fairness.
לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
Do not go about spreading slander in your community. Do not stand idly by when your fellow citizen’s life is threatened. I am YHVH. (19:16)
Love demands that we intervene to minimize harm. Judaism does not include the category of “innocent bystander.” If the accidental witnesses of George Floyd’s murder had not persisted, over the threats of the police, in recording the event, justice for the powerless would again have been denied.
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
Do not nurse hatred in your heart against your fellow citizen; rather, interrupt their harmful behavior. If you do not attempt to intervene, you are considered to have sinned. (19:17)
Love demands that we intervene. If we merely walk past, muttering our disdain, we become part of the problem. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against your fellow citizen; rather, you shall love your fellow citizen as yourself. I am YHVH. (19:18)
Love is not a mere sentiment. Love is an act, an act of concern for those around us, an act taken to interrupt harm and injustice. Love is the pursuit of justice.
A society that privileges power over fairness (and we know that this is the norm throughout the ages) is a society that has failed to implement the demands of love and justice. Judaism commands us to never become complacent about this perennial state of affairs, hopeless as the cause sometimes seems to appear. Despite all obstacles, collectively we have the ability to make the ideal real. The judgement passed in that Minneapolis courtroom this week was not just the result of the excellent work of the prosecutors. It was the result of millions and millions of us awakening this past year to the injustice of racism in our country, finally awakening to the awareness that our fellow Black citizens’ lives – our neighbors’ lives – were in constant danger from the very institutions that are charged with protecting these citizens’ lives. It was the result of all of us refusing to be bystanders while our fellow citizens’ lives are threatened. This is love in action, caring about others the way we would want to be cared for. Love in action, breaking down the dams of cynicism and self-absorption so that once again, as the prophet Amos declared, “Justice can roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
May we and our nation continue to be watered by this mighty stream.