Race and Policing in our Democracy: An Orthodox Reflection

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Sunday night I drove home from New York. The speed of traffic was approximately 80 in the middle lane, and I drove at about the speed of traffic, sometimes a little faster when I shifted into the left lane. This meant, of course, that I and every other car on the road could be pulled over by the State Police at their sole discretion, since we were all above the speed limit, which varied from 50-65 without any discernible behavioral impact. This capacity for arbitrary arrest and/or fining is why police cars, or even the prospect of police cars, make me nervous or angry while I’m driving, and why I believe that speeding laws as currently enforced are blatantly unconstitutional.

This is the closest I can come to how many African Americans feel about police all the time, everywhere.

When I start obsessing about speeding, Deborah Klapper argues that speeding tickets are the revenue stream for highway patrols, and that without highway patrols we would be in constant fear of carjackings and worse. And she is right, just as social conservatives are right that without effective police work our cities would rapidly become uninhabitable, and interethnic violence in particular would mushroom. As a survivor of pre-Giuliani New York I understand this viscerally.

And yet – that doesn’t change my feelings about speed traps. There must be a better way to fund highway patrols than deliberately setting speed limits below the speed of traffic, and there must also be a way to effectively police our cities without having African Americans literally fear for their lives whenever they interact with a policeman.

Modern Orthodox rabbis should have no trouble relating to the crisis that results when the guardians of the law are seen as oppressors, but the only apparent alternative is loosing mere anarchy upon the world.

The Shabbat before the grand jury decision re Eric Garner, I spoke at Princeton (as part of the SBM reunion Shabbat) about the need to carry on Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik’s tradition of seeing civil rights issues as religiously vital. At the same time, I was careful not to take a position regarding the guilt or innocence of the police officer who killed Michael Brown, and I was unsure as to whether even the nonviolent protests in Ferguson were a good idea, for two reasons: first, they seemed inevitably to spawn and provide cover for violence, and second, they exacerbated the sense of police and community as antagonists. In the aftermath of the deaths in New York, the last point seems to me strengthened.

I don’t think my caution is necessarily a model for universal emulation. If civil disobedience was inevitable, I’m glad that activist rabbis were prominent among those arrested, and probably it would have been better had there been Orthodox rabbis among them. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder’s learned and powerful sichah at YU, calling on all present to watch the video of Garner’s death and take responsibility for an act of negligent homicide committed by their appointed representatives, will become a primary source and inspiration for ethically sensitive yeshiva students. Rabbi Avi Weiss led a prayer service in support of the NYPD after the two policemen were murdered. I hope it is clear that these need not be contradictory; I rather suspect that a younger Rabbi Weiss would have been arrested the first night as well, and then bounded from his cell to conduct the pro-police prayer service.

I don’t know how many of us have the capacity to throw ourselves emotionally into multiple sides of the same issue. But I think Orthodox Jews as a community might have much to contribute here. We remember what it was like to be a persecuted minority; we have very recently lived, and in some cases still live, in urban areas haunted by violent crime and civic disorder; and we have a deep cultural commitment to the necessity and authority of law. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that for many purposes we have become “whites” in the United States.

What would happen if we tried to use those experiences and identifications to try to help the police and African Americans build trust with one another?

Here is an outlandish fantasy: What if policemen and inner city youths studied Talmud in chavruta together? By which I mean – what if they learned traditional texts about excessive force in self-defense, and/or about the uses and dangers of presumptions, and tried together to construct coherent manuals and codes for difficult encounters?

I recognize that this is a fantasy. But I do want to suggest that the process of Talmud, which I understand in part as an effort to engage all the conflicting passions of humanity tempered by displacing their conflicts into textual interpretation, can have real world value, and that as full participants in a riven civil society, we should see it as our obligation to realize that value. This may not be the time, the place, or the issue, but if not now, then when, where, and about what?

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