The Baltimore Riots: A Perspective from Ground Zero

Baltimore_riot_police_VOARabbi Daniel Lerner, Rabbi of the Pikesville Jewish Congregation in Baltimore shared his thoughts on the mayhem that overtook the streets of his city this week.

I am sharing this message at the behest of several members of our community. Nevertheless, I do so with a great sense of trepidation.

When addressing current events or communal concerns from the pulpit, I endeavor to do so in the context of a Torah perspective. I always seek to distinguish between the Torah and my own opinion. What I share with you here is subjective. It is my hope and prayer that these personal reflections will offer some comfort and guidance during a time of great turmoil and pain in our city.

Over the years, I have come to believe that each of us resides in our own emotional neighborhood. Meaning, we all have certain “default” patterns of feelings that we experience and express in response to outside events. In times of stress, we often become “more” of who we already are: people who are predisposed to anger become angry, the anxious become more fearful, those who tend toward depression become sadder, etc.

For many, the reaction to scenes of mayhem in Baltimore city this past week was predictable. Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, progressives, conservatives, conspiracy theorists, secular-humanists, religious fundamentalists, all had their “take” on why this was happening. The savvy information consumer most likely knows how CNN, FOX,or MSNBC will report on the very same event in an attempt to validate the conclusions already reached by their respective viewership or to indoctrinate the newbie.

Our biases draw us to connect with others who reside in emotional neighborhoods similar to ours. This is especially true for the growing number of people who rely on social media or blogs for their news. These platforms are often echo-chambers of kindred-spirits as opposed to platforms for spirited debate. Safe space for open exchange of ideas, critical thinking, or in-depth analysis appears to be rapidly diminishing.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13) relates:

“R. Abba stated in the name of Shmuel: For 3 years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, these said, ‘The halacha is in agreement with our views’ and these said, ‘The halacha is in agreement with our views’. A Bat Kol (often understood as “heavenly voice”) emerged and said to them, ‘Both these and these are the words of the living G-d, but the halacha is like Beit Hillel’. (The Talmud asks) Since both are the words of the living G-d’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halacha established in agreement with their rulings? Because they were pleasant and humble, and they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai. And furthermore, they (Beit Hillel) gave precedence to the words of Beit Shammai before their own.”

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue over many points of Jewish law. They even have several philosophical disagreements. Yet the Talmud affirms that both are theologically correct!

The Talmud in Yevamot (14a) articulates that the underlying point of contention between the respective schools of Hillel and Shammai was on what ought to be the determining variable in Jewish Law: Intellectual acuity or majority rule. The school of Shammai was renowned for being “michaddidei t’fei” (sharp perception) and the school of Hillel generally had the majority of votes.

In practice, the law follows the majority position of the sages, which most of the time was represented by Beit Hillel. Nevertheless, our sages assert that even when only one school “won” the legislative vote, both have viable positions that can be substantiated as a legally valid position.

The Talmud should not be misinterpreted to mean that “everyone” is right. The Talmud presents plenty of cases of faulty reasoning, misapplication of legal principle or misunderstandings. The point here is that Torah allows for two opposing positions to occupy the same Divine space.

It’s worth noting that, when it comes to applied law, democracy trumps intellectual superiority. But the Talmud is teaching us something more than legal process. It is teaching us that the manner in which we engage in debate and how we treat our intellectual adversaries may, in and of itself, holds great value.

We live in a world that values sharpness over courteousness. Superficial and repetitive talking-points have become the norm. Opposing perspectives are not only ignored, they are shouted down and trampled. We are talking at each other and not to one another; too much speaking; not enough listening.

Hearing the reports of Freddie Grey’s arrest and death; watching the protests and riots, seeing the police show incredible restraint in the face of blatant lawlessness and taunting, hearing from victims of assault, thievery, and arson, watching politicians struggle towards balanced leadership – it is clear that there are no easy answers that can comprehensively and definitively explain what Mayor Rawlings-Blake described as “one of our darkest days” in Baltimore.

During these dark days, the human tendency is for us to retreat and entrench ourselves in our emotional neighborhoods. This is understandable. But I believe that this instinctive response only leads to greater polarization and hopelessness.

The recent events have left many of us on-edge. We are worried about the future. We want to do something to help, yet we are feeling quite helpless.

In the absence of platitudes or grandiose plans, I humbly submit the following:

While the Torah expects all of us to exercise self-control, it is clear that the external controls of government are often necessary for ensuring civility and public safety. In Ethics From Sinai, author Irving Bunim suggests that the term “malchut” (government) might also refer to Malchut Shamayim (The Heavenly Kingdom). With this in mind, let us pray that G-d’s presence be recognized and acknowledged in this world thereby motivating humanity to strive towards greater social virtue.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.