by Chaim Saiman
A Jewish boy¬— lets call him Tuvia Mendel— is walking home one night. Maybe he is a bit drunk, maybe not. Tuvia attracts the attention of a non-Jewish neighborhood watchman who describes him as wearing a dark suit, white shirt, black hat and white strings hanging out of his pants. The watchman calls the police, who advise him to hold back. Activities ensue and Tuvia is shot by the watchman. The watchman maintains that he was acting in self-defense and the jury so finds.
Other than changing Tuvia’s name and identity, lets try and hold all the other elements of the Trayvon Martin case constant, simply replicating the debates about the facts and the inferences to be drawn from them from the real case into our own. True, the trial brought out wildly different accounts of what happened, but if it was Tuvia rather than Trayvon, is there any doubt the Orthodox community would resolve these ambiguities differently?
The response would not be monolithic. Some would say the system is outright anti-semetic, drawing a straight line from the horrors of the European past to the American present. Others would hold that this serves as proof-positive that the halakhot of mesira remain in full-force, and that cooperation with the state authorities is prohibited. Yet others would begrudgingly resolve that the judicial process must be respected, but would hope to raise awareness by questioning gun laws, the legal conception of self-defense and the “soft” anti-Semitism that pervades some quadrants of American culture. And finally some would emphasize the need to for the Orthodox community to arm and protect itself. Either way, our communal leaders would come together and pressure politicians to the denounce the verdict, engage and support civil rights and civil damages lawsuits and organize prayer and learning sessions in memory of Tuvia’s neshama.
In reality, of course, it was Trayvon rather than Tuvia that was shot. Searching the OU, RCA, IRF, and Agudah’s websites (in the case of the latter, its non-website), I found no statement or reaction to the matter. Further, what little has emerged from Orthodox leaders carefully walks around the hedges, claiming that we can’t possibly judge this case since the facts will forever remain obscured. Representative is R. Avi Shafran’s recent post to this forum, where he wrote, “[T]o proclaim our certitude about an occurrence removed from our personal experience, and about which we have been served conflicting claims, is senseless. We’re entitled (at least sometimes) to our suspicions, but suspicion is not knowledge. The truth about Trayvon? That we don’t know what transpired.” R. Shafran is surely correct that none of us know what happened. But would this have mattered under different circumstances? Diligent readers of this blog will not have too hard a time imagining what some in our community might have written if Tuvia rather than Trayvon were shot.
The most legitimate explanation for the non-response is “Yes, but.” Yes, its true that even keeping all the facts the same, our community would respond very differently. But this isn’t our issue. The Orthodox community has limited attention span and political capital. And it cannot possibly involve itself with every issue or potential injustice of the day.
To a large extent, I agree. I am no universalist who finds it immoral to make distinctions between communities. Such an approach is neither true to lived experience nor very practical, and it likely leads to a pernicious cocktail of paralysis and nihilism. Further as matter of both halakha and common sense, society works best from the inside out: from family to community, from community to klal yisrael, and from klal yisrael to kol yoshvei tevel.
For all these reasons, it would be out of whack to expect all the resources of Orthodox public activism to be placed behind this issue. In the end, Trayvon is not Tuvia, and there non-trivial arguments that based on Florida law and the facts as presented the jury’s decision is defensible, and maybe even correct. Nevertheless, surely there is room between a full-scale response and the silence of Orthodox officialdom. After all, loss of life, stereotyping and discrimination are issues we generally care and speak out about. To this effect, the ADL’s statement may offer a useful template. Though the ADL makes clear that it does not question the verdict, it notes that the case “raises serious questions about the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws and the easy access to concealed weapons permits,” noting that “had neither been in place, this tragedy may have never occurred. The ADL concludes with the hope that “the debate concerning the justice of the verdict… will inspire a continued and much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.” I would most favor a more modest release stating that as members of a group that has historically been the subject of discrimination, we are concerned about a legal regime in which self-defense can justify escalating a confrontation that may result in death. Or perhaps an even milder expression of sadness about the loss of life that emerged from a confrontation that the law should seek to diffuse, rather than escalate. Here one could perhaps tie in to the Gemara’s apparent preference for resolving such matters through non-lethal rather than lethal force, though the complexities of nitan lehatzilo be-echad me-eivarav are probably best left for the beit midrash.
Hence the question is not why the Orthodox community is not at the forefront of the protests and public outcry, but why it does not see its role as showing even a modicum of concern? Does anyone dispute that if the facts were reversed, whatever factual doubts we may have would melt away? Would we not welcome and cultivate large coalition of social and religious groups to stand in solidarity with us? In fact, some may go so far as to charge groups who refuse to stand behind us with anti-semetic bias.
The matter however is important beyond this case, as it touches on how we approach Orthodox public advocacy more generally. Are we just another interest group that lobbies instrumentally for school vouchers, religious freedom, and Jewish sovereignty over Israel? A group that concerns itself with the justice part of the criminal justice system only when it impacts one of our own? Or about prison reform only when a frum Jew is in jail? Or, as those who bear God’s name and speak for Torah, ought we be guided by principles apart from expediency? I think it wholly legitimate to start with our own, but what lesson do we take from it? If we would be outraged if it happened to us, why do we show no concern when it happens to someone else?
I have no illusions that such a move would not be popular in certain circles— circles we might feel politically and ideologically closer to than the community surrounding Trayvon. But for exactly this reason, even a small gesture may carry great weight. It would show that while Orthodox advocacy is predominantly concerned with its own well-being, this inward focus is justified. Because in doing so, Orthodoxy creates a community that is strong enough to reach beyond its comfort zone and empathize with the Other—even when the Other is distant indeed.
Chaim Saiman teaches Jewish law at Villanova Law School and is the Gruss Professor of Talmudic Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He learned at the yeshivot of Kerem B’Yavne and Har Etzion.