March 29, 2020

Do Justice or Go Home

There is a disturbing story of rabbinic apathy in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 55a) in which Rabbi Yehudah is learning from Rabbi Shmuel.

(These aren’t just two run-of-the-mill rabbis. Shmuel is one of the rabbis — Rav is the other — credited with establishing the major rabbinic academies, or yeshivot, in Babylonia.)

Rabbi Yehudah was Shmuel’s principal student. As they were studying, a woman came along. She was of no consequence to either Shmuel or the author of the story, so we have no record of her name. However, she apparently knew who Shmuel was and, as the Talmud relates, “She cried out before him.” We don’t know what her plaint was. We do know that she thought that Shmuel could bring her some manner of relief. Unfortunately for her, the Talmud continues, Shmuel “paid no attention” to her. 

Rabbi Yehudah was disturbed by the behavior of his teacher and master, and he said: “Do you not agree with the sentiment in the verse that ‘Who stops his ears at the cry of the wretched, He too will call and not be answered.’?” (Proverbs 21:13).

Shmuel, somewhat impatiently, replies: “This does not apply to me since Mar Uqba is the head of court.” Shmuel backs up his claim that this is not his responsibility by citing a different verse: “O house of David, thus said the Lord: Execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings”(Jeremiah 21:12). Surprisingly, instead of raising up the demand to “execute justice … and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor,” Shmuel finds in this verse a reason to ignore a woman’s cry. Shmuel reads the opening words of the verse very strictly: “O house of David …” That is, according to Shmuel’s interpretation, only the House of David, that is the head of the court, is culpable. He has nothing to worry about.

While Shmuel’s apathy is expounded at length, the woman’s cry is left unarticulated. For Shmuel, and seemingly the author of the story, it is as if the woman’s actual plaint was not worthy of taking up the time of this great sage. We know, however, that the phrase “she cried out to him,” whenever it appears in a story in the Babylonian Talmud, signals a cry that needs to be listened to. This story just seems to illustrate the deafness of those who should respond to the cries of those who think they would care. 

I was thinking of this story recently while standing in front of the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles with members of Black Lives Matter and the mothers of Eric Rivera and Christian Escobedo. According to a Los Angeles Times database, Rivera and Escobedo were among the 254 people killed — 193 of whom were Black or latino — by police in Los Angeles County during the term of District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who took office in December 2012 and was re-elected in June 2016, when she ran unopposed.

It was almost exactly a year ago that an unarmed Rivera, who had a toy gun, was shot seven times and killed in Wilmington by Los Angeles police officers. The officers, who were responding to a 911 call about a man catrrying a gun, exited the squad car so quickly that the officer at the wheel failed to put the car in park, and it rolled over Rivera, a police report said. The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners ruled the shooting, as almost every other shooting that has come before it, within policy. 

In the Escobedo incident, according to the official report from the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division, officers were responding to a radio call on Jan. 14 about two men sleeping in public in Montecito Heights, one of whom was said to be armed. Officers  came upon Escobedo, 22, and another man asleep behind a car. As the officers arrived, the other man fled, the report said. Escobedo had a gun and turned it in the officers’ direction, whereupon the officers fatally shot him, the report said. A loaded handgun was recovered at the scene, the report said.

Again, Lacey did not prosecute.

Black Lives Matter has been holding a protest vigil once a week for the past 33 weeks demanding justice and accountability for all those who were killed by LAPD. 

For Lacey to charge the officers involved does not mean that they are guilty of wrongdoing, it means only that they should stand trial. But she has never charged a single officer — even when the police commission and the LAPD  chief have recommended that an officer be prosecuted. Lacey has turned a deaf ear to the cries of bereaved parents and children, lovers, partners and community members. She, too, is ignoring Jeremiah’s demand that she “execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor.” If she is unwilling to hear the cries of those mourning and grieving, then she must be replaced. Lacey cannot even argue, as Rabbi Shmuel did, that it is not her responsibility — it is her only responsibility.

We should never again let someone be elected unopposed to the office of district attorney without knowing that they will “execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor.

There is an interesting continuation to the Talmud’s tale, which is preserved in the 14th-century collection of the Franco-German Tosafot commentaries to Tractate Baba Bathra. The comment itself is attributed to 11th-century North African sage Rabbenu Hananel, who comments on a story about an “out-of-body experience” of one of the sages who was very sick and almost died. When asked by his father, “What did you see?” the sick sage answered: “I saw an upside down world.” He doesn’t explain his statement any further. His father replies: “You saw the true world.”

Rabbenu Hananel writes:

The Gaonim [i.e., the heads of the academies in Babylonia from after the close of the Talmud, approximately the seventh century C.E.] report that they have a tradition handed down from teacher to teacher that the phrase “upside down world” refers to seeing Shmuel [in heaven] sitting in front of [i.e., studying from] Rav Yehudah, his student. This is because Rav Yehudah protested against Shmuel in the story in Shabbat 55a (Baba Bathra 10b).

The tradition that was transmitted shortly after the text was composed connects this statement with our story of Shmuel and Rav Yehudah. The “upside down world” was the one in which the teacher, Shmuel, sits in front of his student Rav Yehudah. This, however, is the true world because Rav Yehudah was the one who protested while Shmuel was silent.

According to this interpretation recorded by Rabbenu Hananel, Shmuel seems to understand that he has an obligation to act within the strict parameters of his authority, and he does not have an obligation to make sure justice happens and injustice is punished. Therefore, if he is not himself the bad actor, he has fulfilled his obligation. Rav Yehudah and the tradition seem to take the opposite stand. There is an obligation to ensure that justice happens and injustice is punished. One must listen to and hear the cry of the oppressed — and then be claimed by it and act accordingly. It is, therefore, Rav Yehudah whom we ultimately raise up. 

We have no assurance about what will happen in the heavenly court. We do have some power here on earth. We should never again let someone be elected unopposed to the office of district attorney without knowing that they will “execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor.”

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen is the rabbi-in-residence for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action in Southern California