On Ferguson, Jewish Law, and Creating a Just Society

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Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on August 23, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.Credit: AFP

The recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri renews the questions of discrimination, excessive force and, more generally, what constitutes "justice" (or the lack thereof as the case may be). For Jews, the importance of justice cannot be understated given the dozens of biblical and rabbinic exhortations to practice justice and condemn corruption. As such, isolated instances of injustice, let alone systemic discrimination, ought to make Torah-observant Jews feel uncomfortable.

In determining who is responsible for creating the just society, we naturally look to those directly in charge. The Torah does not only teach that judges and officers need to be appointed, but that they must judge with righteousness. They should not distort their judgment, particularly through superficial prejudice or bribery - that is, manipulating the law for some personal gain.

The Ferguson shooting has led to allegations of violating both of these principles, by means of prejudicial racial profiling or cover ups in the interests of protecting the police department. Of course the subsequent protests in Ferguson are more about those who have personally endured lifetimes of this injustice than any appeal to biblical authority.

As someone who has never personally experienced racial prejudice, I can only speculate as to the frustration and indignation of the protestors, or their sense of futility of ever hoping to change the system from within. One complaint levied against the Ferguson police department is the lack of racial diversity, where only three out of 53 officers are African American servicing a community that is 67 percent African American. Ferguson Mayor James Knowels in part attributes this disparity to a pipeline problem: since many African Americans “already have this disconnect with law enforcement,” he says, they don’t seek careers in that field, and fewer therefore become police officers.

The higher levels of government are also dominated by whites, despite the African American majority. But then again, the voting turnout has been estimated at a depressing 12 percent. While there are undoubtedly a myriad of factors behind this lack of civic engagement, there is little doubt that disengagement from the society only perpetuates the problems.

Thus far, the communal response to the Ferguson shooting has come in the form of public proclamations and protests. While these reactions are no doubt important to a democratic society, if we look at what can be done through the eyes of the Torah, we understand that raging against the machine is not enough.

Judges and officers are required to be honest and ethical, but the commandment to appoint the honest and ethical judges and officers falls squarely on the community: "you shall appoint for yourself judges and officers." Thus it should not be surprising to find the Jewish people held accountable for the corruption of their leaders, as we are taught in Ruth Rabba 1:7, "woe unto the generation who judges their judges," – for after all, they were the ones who appointed them in the first place.

None of this is to imply that people who do not vote or run for office deserve to be oppressed. Rather, it suggests that the solution for creating a just society or fixing a corrupt system is not to abdicate our responsibilities as citizens out of frustration, but to take the opportunity that civic rights offer us to reengage and create a true, just and peaceful society.

Rabbi Joshua Yuter served as the rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul in New York from 2008 to 2014, when he moved to Israel. He is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, the International Rabbinic Fellowship and Rabbis Without Borders. In 2012, he was ranked in the Top Ten Jewish Influencers for "creative and strategic use of social media to positively impact the Jewish community.

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