Is Our Blood Redder? Synagogue Security and Police Alliance

Thoughts, fears, and tears following a recent class on “How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

The June 5 panel included presentations from several local congregations on issues faced in deciding on security measures, as well as comments from a community security advisor. Brief notes on their initial presentations appear below. The main points included ensuring that Jewish values are considered in decision-making (Garfinkel, Fabrangen), attempting to protect diversity of all kinds within a congregation (Zeilinger, Tifereth Israel), and “acknowledging that other people in the country who want to do you harm” (Apostolou, Ohev Sholom). Some of the discussion included attempts to make congregations welcoming spaces across difference, but each presentation included the importance of creating a close alliance with police.

I had the opportunity to query what it means to ask Jews to enter into an alliance with police, when we know police do not necessarily ensure the safety of Black people, queer people and others or enhance feelings of safety for many. Responses to this query are below within each panelists remarks. While two of the three congregational responses included some level of concern about alliance with police, one panelist actively dismissed the concern, repeating, “Who else are you going to call?”

For anyone concerned about privacy: The class was video-taped, and a Washington Jewish Week reporter was present throughout.


The Unasked Question

Throughout the class, and especially throughout responses to my query about alliance with police, I could not shake the question: “Is your blood redder?” But no one on the panel or in the class asked it aloud, and no one but me raised objections or even questioned an alliance with police…. Instead, most people laughed when heavily armed MPD officers entered the room and someone said, “well, now this is the safest class in the city.”

I began to wonder if perhaps I had remember the Talmud passage incorrectly or had its basic meaning wrong. Here, for anyone who isn’t familiar or just wants to refresh, is the basic quotation:

…[An individual] came before Raba and said to him: “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘Go and kill So-and-so, if not, I will kill you.’” Raba answered him: ‘Let him kill you rather than that you should commit murder; what [reason] do you see [for thinking] that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.’ — Talmud (Pesachim 23b, Sanhedrin 74a)

And here is one teaching that puts it in more context:

[Previous discussion points out that a Jew must accept martyrdom rather than engage in three behaviors: idol worship, forbidden sexual practices, and murder. (This is the text Jerry Garfinkel referenced in his remarks about Jewish values.)]

Two out of the three of these demands for martyrdom — the demand that one forfeit one’s life rather than worship idols or engage in forbidden sexual practices — are contested. In each, a biblical grounding is sought and presented. However, the demand that one allow oneself to be killed rather than murder another is based purely on s’vara, in argument rather than biblical precept:

And from where do we know [the prohibition concerning] the murderer himself? It is common sense. It is as the one who came before Rabbah and said to him, “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘God and kill so and so; if not, I will kill you.” He said to him, “He should kill you and you should not kill; who would say that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.”

Turning the question around (“who is to say that your blood is redder,” rather than “who is to say his blood is redder”) essentially answers the question for Rabbah. If you are to actively take someone else’s life, then you have to be able to articulate an argument that shows that your life is more important than that of the other person. In order for you to claim the right to tip the balance in your favor, when you are on one side and another person is on the other, you have to have a substantial–or even overriding–reason. The instinct of self-preservation is not enough.

— Aryeh Cohen, “And Give You Peace” IN David Birnbaum & Martin S. Cohen Birkat Kohanim: The Priestly Blessing. NY: New Paradigm Matrix, 2016.

And here is another perspective, one that assumes we will likely never have to make such a life-and-death decision:

God willing, none of us will ever have to face so horrible a situation. Still, the Talmud’s insistence that other people’s blood is as important as our own should affect our daily behavior, even in non-life threatening situations. For example, those who push ahead of others in lines are likewise guilty of thinking that their blood is redder than others and that they need not wait their turn. Therefore, before you push your own interests at the expense of others, and assert that your time is more valuable, as yourself the question Rava posed to this man, “Do think that your blood is redder than his?”

— Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Jewish Book of Values. NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2000, p.429.

I do appreciate that each congregation represented is endeavoring to, as Chris Zeilinger said, “doing the best we can.” I understand the struggles, fears, and hard realities that congregational security must face. I am deeply troubled, however, that the question of whose blood is redder does not seem to be taken as relevant.

Is this because the people involved do not believe that police are a threat to any within their congregations? to others in the city?

Is this because the people involved have simply resigned themselves to “who else are you going to call?” and refuse to consider other alternatives?

Can we, please, at least ask the question?

More Reading

For consideration, a few op-eds on related issues:

“Opinion: It’s Time For Jewish Communities To Stop Investing In The Police” from Lara Haft, 3/23/18.

“Op-Ed: On Hanukkah, Let’s Challenge Militarized Security Responses to Anti-Semitism” by Brant Rosen, 12/2/18.

After Pittsburgh, Jewish Communities Need Community Defense, not Cops” by Lara Haft, 11/3/18

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice “Community Safety Pledge


How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

Jewish Study Center course announcement: Wednesday, June 5: Voices From the Community. Community security leaders discuss their practical experience balancing sacredness and security, especially in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting and rising concerns about anti-Semitism. Panel members: Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust who is Security Coordinator at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue. Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel is a retired mathematician who is Treasurer of the Jewish Study Center and Security Coordinator at the Fabrangen Havurah. Vera Krimnus is the DC Area Regional Manager of the Community Security Service (CSS) that provides security services to the Jewish Community, including training, physical security and raising public awareness about security issues. Chris Zeilinger is a US government transportation executive, a former president of Tifereth Israel Congregation and its Security Coordinator. If you have grappled with this issue in your own community, or felt its effects, come join the conversation!



Chris Zeilinger, from Tifereth Israel, shared in his initial presentation his own thoughts, and some from congregants, including how some members feel safer around a visible security presence and others find it “unwelcoming and scary.” He spoke about the congregation’s efforts to ensure welcome for Jews of color and Jews with different identities and expressions of Judaism. Zeilinger also addressed mental illness issues, both in families within the congregation and in individuals who might be seeking to visit or find succor in the congregation.

In response to my query about alliance with police, Zeilinger added that alleged perpetrators in synagogue shootings have “looked like me,” reiterating that they endeavor to make all Jews and visitors welcome, not to screen people out, and, ultimately “do the best we can.”

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Andrew Apostolou, of Ohev Sholom, says he does not consider the U.S. “his country,” and spoke about living in London. His original presentation warned that “security in the US is always considered secondary to something else,” including class expectations (people with “fancy degrees” shouldn’t have their Shabbat ruined by security worries) and younger generations having less focus on communal endeavors. He believes Jews, and the country at large, do not want to acknowledge potential threats.

Apostolou insisted: “If I don’t stand out front of my synagogue ready to call police, I don’t care about the community,” adding that “the ultimate line of defense is deadly force.”

In response to my query about police alliance, Apostolou argued that skin color and appearance are “irrelevant” in security and argued that issues around policing in the US are “domestic political issues” and not practical problems for someone providing synagogue security. He dismissed community solidarity safety efforts as “fodder” for automatic weapons, and repeated several times: “Who else are you going to call?”

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Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel, of Fabrangen Havurah, spoke in his initial remarks about life being paramount in Jewish values, citing the tradition that only three commandments are subordinate to preserving one’s own life: sexual immorality, idolatry, and murdering someone else (B. Sanhedrin 74a). He talked about working jointly with Muslims and other groups using the same building with Fabrangen in ensuring safety and said the goal was to “protect ourselves and others in the community.”

Garfinkel mentioned that Secure Communities Network , which oversees security for Jewish Federations, warned at a recent conference that arming citizens does not solve problems but causes more. He also stressed that the goal of security, as he understands it, is to prevent someone who means harm from entering the space.

In response to my police alliance query, Garfinkel stressed that all police involved in security for Fabrangen are minorities.

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Vera Krimnus, local representative of the Community Security Service, discussed how her organization works with congregations to arrange security. She argued that security is part of a welcoming environment, saying: “If I’m sitting there, worrying about the safety of my kids, is that really welcoming for me?”

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel, taught the first session of the two-part class (which I was unable to attend). Jerry Garfinkel very briefly summarized the class as follows: The community is responsible for security, and should provide it, taxing to do so if need be; however, this “must be done right,” without impeding people who need to use the space.

R. Alexander’s sources for the first session include texts focusing on why we build walls, who is responsible for them, and what to do when a wall blocks out poor people crying for help; whether weapons can be carried into sacred space, under what conditions; and responsibility for activity that may be dangerous to others.

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Gathering Sources: Bechukotai

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Bechukotai — occasionally spelled “Bechukosai,” or “B’hukkothai” — Levitucus 26:3-27:34. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book”:

A Path to Follow: Clearing Out the Old
Something to Notice: Women, Vayikra, and Progress
Great Source(s): Anonymous Commandments to God (9-11th Century CE)

See also on the Haftarah: “Notes on Jeremiah: Max Ticktin’s Scribbles”

Next read in most of the Diaspora on May 25, 2019;
Bechukotai is read in double-portion with Behar in non-leap years.

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Gathering Sources: Behar

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2, sometimes spelled “B’har or “Be-Har.” This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow

Also from Behar: Jubilee and “Free at Last”?

Toward Harvest, part 1

Fewer resources for Behar, which is often read in double-portion with Bechukotai; few more next week.

Some Say 400 Cubits: Slow Dancing with Talmud

I first learned the story of “The Oven of Akhnai” (B. Baba Metzia 59a-59b) in the context of Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, and her teaching about “the gate of wounded feelings.” I learned more about Rabbi Eliezer’s life, post-Akhnai, from a class on one of the Nine Talmudic Readings of Emmanuel Levinas. In addition, I’ve seen and heard the text referenced in many a commentary emphasizing that “Torah is not in heaven.” (See notes below on Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Levinas.) For the first time, however, I am now reading the story in a small community of learners grappling directly with the text as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud…

…word by word,
sometimes syllable by syllable,
through Aramaic and Hebrew,
without relying on previous translation,
until we’ve discerned, at least tentatively,
each word’s root and tense,
gender, number, and possible meanings.
We learn how the words work with one another,
how “technical” expressions like “it is taught,” add clues,
how we, together with our study partners,
and then as a group with our teacher,
can work together to explore
what the text might be saying
and what that says about Jewish thought….

For this “Contemplative Bet Midrash,” taught by SVARA Fellow Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, we are asked to set aside any previous meetings and encounter the text as though for the first time. (For more on SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, visit their website.)

We are encouraged to look up every word, even ones we (think we) know, in order to consider a variety of possible definitions.

SVARA-Inspired Slow Dance

The opening line of our text, for example, tells us “they cut it into pieces,” without explaining who cut what or why. So, we test out “circle” and “dance” and “everyday” before settling on “sand” as the best definition for “חול (chol),” the substance between these unexplained pieces.

We learn that these pieces and sand are “the oven of Akhnai,” and then ask, right along with the voice of the Gemara: “What is this, Akhnai?”

We experience as passing strange the introduction of a carob tree as a point of proof in this argument. Our studies paused this past week right after “they” tell Rabbi Eliezer, “we don’t take evidence from carob trees.” And from this cliff-hanging perspective, I notice things I previously missed.

I’ve never noticed before how this story begins with an image of brokenness — “they cut it into pieces” — and then introduces Rabbi Eliezer already in opposition to the Hakhamim (“Wise Ones,” that is, scholars holding the majority opinion in this case). Previous passes through this material made clear there was a dispute of some magnitude, but I never noticed the extremes of response here, even before we reach the carob tree and what follows:

  • Rabbi Eliezer does not just argue but brings “all the responses (or refutations or arguments) in the world [כל תשובות שבעולם (khol teshuvot sh’ba-olam)],” while
  • the Hakhamim refuse to accept (any) arguments from him, [ולא קיבלו הימנו (v’lo kivalu heimenu)],” rather than simply disagreeing.

“They refused to accept (anything) from him.”

When our learning for one week paused at this point, that phrase just seemed so stark. (Despite attempts to meet the text anew, I’m sure my reaction is influenced to some extent by previous encounters. Still.)

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You are There

Along with feeling the starkness of Rabbi Eliezer’s rejection, I understood the frustration of a community that had made a decision and still heard “all the refutations in the world” from one individual. After all, I’ve been there often enough: watching participants in a community meeting come to a difficult decision while one person — for better or worse in the long run — just cannot get on board….

…Some readers might remember when Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) did those “You Are There” reports, like this one when he speaks from the midst of the Chicago Fire on October 18, 1871. There is a big difference between such a “report,” however contrived, and more distant approaches to history….

One of the effects of the SVARA-inspired slow pace through the material, I’m realizing, is a little like those Cronkite reports: I am there in a way I had not been before.

Learning unfamiliar jargon — or “technical terms” — of the Talmud, as SVARA-inspired spaces encourage, also promotes the “you are there” experience. Some other Talmud studies have included such terms, but I’ve never before been in a group where the practice is to stick with one bit of text until we all have the basics of how it arrived. I now know, for example, that “we learned there” [t’nan hatam] doesn’t reference something taught elsewhere in Babylon or in Jerusalem: instead, it means “elsewhere in the text” (and I am now able to locate the citations on the page). Rabbi Tuchman teaches us to recognize shifts from Mishnah to Gemara and back and make sure we know who is speaking to whom and when. Being asked to constantly orient ourselves within the text makes for a different experience of it.

When the carob tree gets up and moves 100 cubits for Rabbi Eliezer’s proof, the rabbinical report includes the expression, “but some tell it” [v’amri lah], and the alternative recollection: “400 cubits.” In the past, I’ve read this, without giving it much weight, as two variants of a fantastic tale. But, in this word-by-word, step-by-step shuffle with the text I hear two sets of witnesses telling me that they were there. Now, so am I.

Another Cliff-Hanger

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s Contemplative Bet Midrash left us all, at the end of our last session, in the midst of a dispute about cooking that has spiraled into strange realms. A group of Hakhamim have made their decision, while Rabbi Eliezer, so convinced of his own point of view, moves from verbal arguments to calling on supernatural “proof.” Witnesses saw the carob tree move 100 cubits, though some say it was 400 cubits. But the Hakhamim don’t accept that as “evidence” in this oven dispute.

Where will the frustration, anger, pride, arguments and magic lead? How will community kashrut standards be effected? What will be the result of those decisions in terms of holiness? What will be the effect on the community?

I confess to an inclination to read ahead or binge watch to the conclusion. But one of the things this slow dance teaches is that any such conclusion would be meaningless. The real goal is not to “finish” the story, maybe choosing to be #TeamEliezer or #TeamHakhamim along the way. The goal — at least as I understand things this week — is to consider the story together with others, sharing insights and concerns, and to experience together real fears for how this will all turn out for the individuals and the community involved. And that includes us.

It’s uncomfortable, even a little scary, up here on this cliff. But we won’t get down on our own.




NOTES on the Oven of Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Women in the Talmud NOTES:

  • Akhnai
  • Imma Shalom
  • Levinas and The Akhnai Story
    • Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings. Annette Aronowicz, trans. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. Lectures 1963-1975 in French
    • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism, offered a series of classes on the Levinas chapters at National Havurah Committee Summer Institute
    • The chapter, “Desacralization and Disenchantment,” looks at Sanhedrin 67a-68a, which describes the end of Rabbi Eliezer’s life. (It was this chapter I had the opportunity to explore in a long-ago week-long class at the Institute.)

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Gathering Sources: Emor

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23; no common alternative spellings). This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Something to Notice: damage to God and God’s name
Language and Translation: Complete Rest (Lev 23:32)
Great Source(s): on the Omer
A Path to Follow: Four times Moses asked God to decide

Due to differences in holiday observances, Torah reading schedules begin to diverge in some congregations with the holiday of Passover. Emor is next read on May 11, beginning with minchah on May 4, in Israel and Reform calendars; it is next read in orthodox, Conservative, and many other congregations on May 18, beginning with minchah on May 11.

Gathering Sources: Kedoshim

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27; occasionally spelled “K’doshim” or starting with “Q”). This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Due to differences in holiday observances, Torah reading schedules begin to diverge in some congregations with the holiday of Passover. Kedoshim is next read on May 4, beginning with minchah on April 27, in Israel and Reform calendars; it is next read in orthodox, Conservative, and many other congregations on May 11, beginning with minchah on May 4.

Something to Notice: “female” attention to minutia
Language and Translation: Lev 19:4 (don’t turn/no gods)
Great Source(s): Holiness Ripple
A Path to Follow: An Old Question
based on the still relevant, if somewhat dated, “Study Mehitza

See also: Stumbling Blocks Before Us All

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Gathering Sources: Acharei Mot

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30; also sometimes: Aharei Mot or Aharei Mos). This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Due to differences in holiday observances, Torah reading schedules begin to diverge between Movements with the holiday of Passover. Acharei Mot is next read on April 27, beginning with minchah on April 20, in Israel and Reform calendars; it is next read in orthodox, Conservative, and many other congregations on May 4, beginning with minchah on April 27.

Something to Notice: “Go Tell Your Brother”
A Path to Follow: Charles Reznikoff and four pens in five fingers
Language and Translation: Nefesh and ish sound patterns
Great Source(s): No Creature Unfit

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