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Opinions & Observations: The Torah tells us what to do in the wake of George Floyd’s death

June 2, 2020 Rabbi Rachel Timoner and Matt Nosanchuk

The events of the past week — from the execution of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis to the disproportionate force used by the NYPD on protesters — have provided a painful reminder that the promise of “equal justice under the law” remains out of reach when our approach to law enforcement and criminal justice are infected by structural racism. Our values as Jews demand our Brooklyn Jewish community show up, speak out, and advocate for change.

On Thursday, while Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered Floyd, remained free and uncharged, our community needed to look no further than our Torah to see what to do. We observed the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the revelation of the Torah, our bible, at Mt. Sinai, and we were reminded that our tradition demands action to hold those responsible for Floyd’s death accountable under the law. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, we are commanded: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

Many Jews spent their Shabbat participating in the holy work of peaceful protests, where they and fellow New Yorkers attempting to exercise their civil rights were met in some cases by police brutality: Members of the NYPD drove their vehicles through people, shoved a protestor to the ground, sending her to the ER, and unmasked a Black man in the middle of a public health crisis to pepper spray him in the face.

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George Floyd’s murder has ripped open the wound of structural racism that has festered and deepend in our nation for 400 years. And a succession of interventions, some well-intentioned but others attempting to deny the existence of any problem or suggesting the answer to our problem is “color-blindness”, have failed to excise the abuse of power and violence that prevent this wound from healing.

As American Jews, now is the time to use our values to guide us. Our Torah is clear. It teaches that every human being, created in the Divine image, has infinite worth and is fundamentally equal to every other (Genesis 1:26, Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). It teaches that indeed we are our brothers’ keepers (Genesis 4:9). It teaches that God hears the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 22:22). And it commands us, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16).

Matt Nosanchuk is co-founder and president of the New York Jewish Agenda. Photo courtesy of Matt Nosanchuk

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was guided by Torah when he stood with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., two prophets of peace drawing on a shared tradition of human dignity. The fundamental equality of every human being will remain illusory in an America where a Black man is killed because he presented an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.

Condemning the killing of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of Eric Garner, and so many others is our responsibility, but it is only the starting point for work we must do to dismantle structural racism in our city, state, and nation.

Section 50-a, of New York State Civil Rights Law, perpetuates police unaccountability by shielding misconduct records from the public view. As part of the progressive gains made in New York State last year a repeal of 50-a was attempted, but failed. The New York Jewish Agenda is supporting the efforts of Communities United for Police Reform and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to ensure once and for all that police misconduct is not concealed from public accountability.

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In New York City, we must demand reform in the NYPD. Mayor de Blasio commended the “tremendous restraint” of the NYPD on the same night officers brutalized protesters with impunity. (Mayor De Blasio later called for an investigation into specific instances of police brutality.) Budgets are moral documents, but the mayor’s proposed budget calls for a hiring freeze on teachers but not of police officers.

The past week has changed America, and we must now renew our commitment to the ongoing fight for justice. We must seize the once-in-a-generation opportunity to attack the dual viruses of COVID-19 and structural racism by addressing the deep structural wrongs laid bare by this period of disease, death, and destruction. In its great diversity, Brooklyn’s many communities have the opportunity to come together in solidarity to wage the fight.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, the largest non-orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, and co-founder of the New York Jewish Agenda.

 Matt Nosanchuk is co-founder and president of the New York Jewish Agenda.


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