I was a college student doing about 78 mph on my way from Pittsburgh to New York City to visit my boyfriend. Suddenly flashing lights appeared behind me, my stomach flipped over, and I was busted. The officer sauntered up to my window. He asked questions that I felt were intrusive, like where was I going, where was I coming from, who was I going to see. He made a comment about my “pretty face” being smashed if I crashed at that speed. I wanted him to just give me a ticket and go away. Finally he did.
This isn’t a dramatic story. Most of my interactions with police have been related to speeding. They have been uneventful. I doubt that police officers, when they see this white professional woman’s face, feel at all threatened. Even so, in the story above, I felt shamed and angry. I can only imagine how it feels to be stopped and frisked repeatedly, or pulled over for no reason other than my race. I expect that many officers engaged in those activities are showing at least as much condescension as was shown to me.
I can also only imagine what it is to be a police officer. Last week in the Washington Post, Sunil Dutta wrote about what it’s like for him and his colleagues. His emphasis was on the behavior of the person stopped, not on the behavior of the officer stopping them, though he mentions that officers should treat people with courtesy and respect. Research shows that students meet the expectations of their teachers. By the same token, the way people are treated affects their behavior and their self-image. Police officers have a lot of power over the people they stop. Treating people like criminals, humiliating them, or assuming they’re up to no good, all have an impact on the relationship between police and residents of a community that is detrimental.
Judaism places high value on the dignity of each person. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that humanity was made in the image of God—b’tzelem Elohim. This teaching urges us to recognize every person’s equal value and treat each other with dignity.
Our great rabbi Maimonides wrote that “The Sages say, ‘One who shames (lit., ‘makes white’) the face of his fellow… has no share in the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avot 3:15). Therefore, one must be careful in this matter—that he not embarrass his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name which shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.”
We are so far from these goals in many of the interactions between police and civilians in Ferguson, MO, though we saw the difference that mutual respect can make when the state highway patrol took over police operations there. Recognizing how difficult it is, we must move in the direction of honoring the dignity of every person and interacting with them accordingly. This is particularly incumbent on police, who have the power in their encounters with others.
Like everyone else I know who is active in the Jewish community, my Facebook page and email inbox have been inundated with articles about the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews that was released at the beginning of October. With varying degrees of hand-wringing, they say it seems that the Jewish community is shrinking, and in another hundred years or so there will be no more Jews in the U.S. except a small number of Orthodox Jews. The message: We have to do everything possible to get people to stay Jewish and raise Jewish kids, or there won’t be any more Jews.
As I led Torah study at my synagogue in Brooklyn on Shabbat morning last week, these articles were on my mind while we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. The story struck a chord for me this year. I realized that I sometimes feel like the Jewish community is saying, “If we could just build a big enough tower, we could get people to keep being Jewish!” and “We need to make a tower that 20-somethings will think is really cool, and then we’ll be OK!”
Of course this is a flipped-over Tower of Babel. Instead of a tower project enabled by everyone speaking the same language and having the same words, this tower is about trying to get everyone to speak the same language and have the same words. Nevertheless, both towers are about control—let’s make a name for ourselves, let’s control where the community is going.
The Jewish community is changing. I’m not sure what everything in the Pew survey means, though I do know it’s a snapshot in time, and that people’s spiritual needs change over time. I also know that I am a part of a rich and wonderful tradition that has a lot to offer. I trust that tradition. I believe we need to innovate and change. I believe we need to help Jews find a way to live their Judaism that is relevant and spiritually fulfilling. But I want that innovation and that outreach to be based on joy and love for our tradition, not on fear for its future. That positive attitude is what will make us stronger; not an attitude of desperation.
My synagogue is a small community—right now we have just over 100 families and individuals as members. At that Torah study last week there were 25-30 adults who were engaged and excited to wrestle with our Torah. They ranged in age from parents of young children to retirees. Some did not grow up with Judaism. Some weren’t interested in Judaism when they were in their 20s and 30s but became engaged later—through children, or spouses, or an awakening of interest in spirituality or their heritage. They don’t like everything they find in our tradition, but they find a lot that speaks to them where they are in their lives. Torah study allows us to get deeper than the superficialities of everyday life; it gives us a space to talk about the big issues and questions.
I’m less concerned with the Jews in the Pew survey and more concerned with the Jews in my pews. If, as a rabbi, I can facilitate exploration of Judaism and open the door to the joy and richness of Judaism for the people I meet at my synagogue and elsewhere, then perhaps they will choose to increase their involvement with Judaism in one way or another. Or maybe they won’t. I don’t control that. So I’m not going to wring my hands over it; I’m just going to keep trying to help people in their spiritual searches, and not try to build a Tower of Babel that will get them to be the Jews I think they should be.