Justice, Justice for All

When I was a junior in college, I spent the year in Jerusalem, studying at the Hebrew University. That year in Israel, more than any other single experience, determined the direction my life would take. I found myself taking every Judaic studies class I could, and I loved them so much that I decided to go to rabbinic school and spend my life immersed in the excitement and meaning of sacred Jewish texts.

When the year was over, I met up with my best friend and spent the summer traveling by trains all over Europe. We would simply walk into a train station and go to whatever city and country the next train was headed. Italy, France, Germany, Spain, England — it hardly mattered, because we had our backpacks and guitars and an innocent enthusiasm for whatever life had to offer.

It was a glorious summer of adventure and fun except for those unexpected moments when the ugliness of humanity would rear its vicious head: like the time in Paris when we walked into the metro only to discover “Morts le Juifs” (“Death to the Jews”) scrawled boldly across the subway walls; and the visit to a Rome synagogue that included being frisked by guards at the entrance because, only a week before, a bomb had gone off a few meters away, killing a group of Jews on their way home from shul.

And so, from time to time, our playful exuberance was stifled by the sober recognition that Europe was still a place where fear and brutality and hate could rein. Ultimately, I remember how relieved we were to make our way back to the United States, and how proud we felt to live in a land of freedom and justice.

But then my safe, secure, smug world turned upside down. After Kent State, being tear-gassed during Vietnam War protests and witnessing the violence of People’s Park in Berkeley, I have never really been the same. I still know that America is the best country on earth — otherwise why would everyone else in the world keep trying to find ways of coming here? But ever since, I haven’t been able to close my eyes to the ethical inconsistencies and stark contradictions in American political life.

We protest the loudest at human rights violations in countries around the world, and stand tall and proud against the injustices and tortures and oppression of innocents abroad. Yet the United States is only one of two nations in the world who have yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the other non-signatory is Somalia). Even Iran and Saudi Arabia have ratified it.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which we have signed) and the American Convention on Human Rights (which we also signed) both state that “the sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age.” Yet while we lecture other nations on human rights, we are one of only four countries (including Yemen and Nigeria) that execute our own children nearly every year. And our thirst for young blood is growing worse and worse, as the age of children tried as adults gets younger and younger.

No juveniles are sentenced to death in any European nation, and, in the past 10 years, only Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and the United States have executed children — and the United States has conducted the most executions and has the largest number of juveniles awaiting execution on death row.

In Wisconsin, any child 10 years old or older can go to adult court; in Kansas and Pennsylvania, it’s 14; in Florida, it’s 16; in California, it’s 15; in Oklahoma, it’s 7; and in 36 states, there is no minimum age at all.

We are killing our children, and, in Jewish law, there is no such thing as being an innocent bystander to deaths by conviction.

This week’s Torah portion contains a remarkable passage mandating that if an unsolved murder is discovered, the elders of the nearest city must offer a sacrifice and proclaim to God, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done” (Deuteronomy 21:7). They then pray that God absolve the entire community from the responsibility for the murder in their midst.

For centuries, rabbinic commentators have wrestled with this passage and the question of when a community is absolved from the responsibility of the murders that take place in its midst. And the Malbim decided that this declaration could only legitimately be made when the people can claim they didn’t withhold food from the murderer so that he was not driven by hunger to the slaying, and they offered the victim an escort so that she wouldn’t go unprotected into a place of danger.

We are not so lucky, and we are not so guiltless. Whenever the poverty, abuse, negligence, exploitation and violence in our homes goes unchecked and ignored, we all share in the guilt and responsibility for the crimes committed as a result of the deplorable social conditions of our own community.

More than 200,000 children are sent to adult courts each year. “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” our portion declares (Deuteronomy 16:20), and Rabbi Simha Bunma said that the repetition of the word “justice” is to teach that, in our pursuit of just and righteous ends, our means must be just as well. As we begin the month of Elul today, I believe that we must turn from our fanatical call for “justice” at any price, and remember that God is found in the embrace of mercy and compassion. That’s the country I remember being proud of, and that’s the society I know we must champion.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.