In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s sons were angry. Their sister Dinah had been raped. Now, they were confronting the man who did it – Shechem – and his father Hamor. They could have extracted a financial settlement. They could have insisted on some sort of punishment. They did neither.
Instead, they talked Shechem and Hamor into circumcising themselves and the men of their community so that they could marry the women of Jacob’s clan. They told Shechem he would be permitted to marry Dinah. When the men were suffering as a result of the procedure, Jacob’s sons – the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes – attacked Shechem, Hamor and the men of their town, killing them all, and plundered the town.
The Torah itself says that the sons of Jacob spoke “with guile” (see Gen. 34:13).
In his commentary on this episode, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch – considered the father of modern orthodoxy – wrote that these were “acts which are deserving of censure and for which we are under no obligation to find an excuse.” Although we sympathize with the victim Dinah and want to see the perpetrator punished, the sons of Jacob went too far. Even Jacob – no stranger to deception – chastised Simeon and Levi, the ringleaders of this ruse: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land (Gen. 34:30).”
The sons of Jacob were in the right. They held the moral high ground. Schechem was rapist and he was holding Dinah captive in his home until he could negotiate a marriage. Yet, through their acts of deceit and violence, it is hard to remain sympathetic to their cause. Dinah needed to be freed and Shechem deserved punishment. But killing every male in the city and looting their property were not justified.
This is how I feel in the wake of the Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict Eric Garner’s killer. When the officers involved could not find a peaceful, safe way to arrest a man for selling loose cigarettes, they abandoned the moral high ground. When an officer used a banned chokehold to subdue a man who was not harming anyone at that moment, his actions were no longer justified. He simply went too far.
I have a great deal of respect for police officers who put themselves at tremendous risk in order to ensure and protect my safety. I know that I could not do their job. However, that does not give them a free pass. There have to be consequences for officers who go beyond the boundaries of good policing.
I was both angry and sad in recent months when the rabbi who got the most press attention in this country was a man who illegally recorded nude women in his synagogue’s mikveh. It gave my profession a bad name. I have to believe that there are good cops out there who are angry and sad because of these officers who are giving the profession a bad name.
I had two experiences this past week that really made me think about this issue – both occurred after Ferguson, but before the Staten Island grand jury decision.
First, I was driving down Morris Avenue not too far from the synagogue when I saw two large African-American men wearing hoodies and army jackets walking down the street. I remember thinking to myself that it was an unusual sight in Summit. Then, I started challenging myself as to why I gave them a second look. Was it because of their clothing? Was it because they were African Americans? Was it their size? Was it because they did not look affluent enough to be in this neighborhood? I like to think that I am a fairly open-minded individual and yet, here I was – wondering what they were doing in this neighborhood.
Then, I had an interaction with a police officer here in Summit about a traffic incident. The officer could not have been more courteous or respectful. He was a true gentleman. I think he figured out who I am due to my interfaith work in town and that may have affected our interaction. But, I could not help wondering if the situation would have played out differently if I were African American instead of white. I grew up as the son of a local judge, around cops all the time. Yet, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I see a police car in my rearview mirror even though I am fairly certain that my interaction with the police will never turn violent. I cannot imagine how it must feel for African Americans who can never feel that sense of certainty.
The vast majority of cops are great. They serve our communities with honor, doing a job that most of us could never do. However, when individuals forget the limits within which they are bound to operate – as was clearly the case in the death of Eric Garner – we must remember the words of Rabbi Hirsch and call them out for “acts which are deserving of censure and for which we are under no obligation to find an excuse.”