Sermon: Shofetim – ‘Just Another Murder’

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 27 August 2015

Being a Rabbi can get you in to some very interesting places.  It is one of the things that I love about being one.  In April this year I went to the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience.   The Religious Action Center is American Reform Judaism’s Social Justice arm which, for more than 60 years, has ensured that Judaism has a voice in the Washington DC corridors of power.

Since 1977 every two years the Religious Action Center has held a national conference called the Consultation on Conscience at which representatives from congregations all around the country come together to fix the issues on which the RAC will campaign over the coming biennial.  There were 350 enthusiastic American community social justice leaders – and me – the only non-American there.

It is one of my aims for the coming year to bring the Consultation on Conscience here to London at Alyth next spring so that British congregations have a way of building and expressing their concerns about how to put Jewish values into action and actually speak with the people who can make it happen, our MP’s and Ministers and the most effective public lobbying organisation.  If this interests you then I will soon be seeking volunteers to work with me to help make this happen as we work out how British Jews can effectively make a difference to this country from our grassroots to the nation.

The third day of the RAC Consultation of Conscience was spent on Capitol Hill, the seat of US government in Washington DC.  There our role as delegates was to meet with the Congressmen and Senators for the places where we came from and to let them know what was bothering the Jews, what the RAC was going to be lobbying on.   I became an honorary resident of Los Angeles for the purpose.

It was all rather energising as we scooted from building to building along Capitol Hill meeting the chiefs of staff for Senator Barbara Boxer from California, Representative Janice Hahn of Long Beach and Representative Ted Lieu of West Los Angeles.  The little boy in me found the scooting from building to building the most exciting bit because we did not do so above ground. Turns out that all of those buildings along Capitol Hill are linked and accessed by a series of underground tunnels with West Wing like types striding ever so purposefully between them – on this day joined by Jews from throughout the country making it clear that our own Jewish community and Israel are not the only concerns of Reform Jews.

One of the most pressing lobbying issues for the Religious Action Center that came out of the Consultation on Conscience was the epidemic of gun crime in the USA.    There was a strong sense of consensus, as is unlikely to surprise you, that Reform Jews feel that the control of guns in the US is very important to creating a society more at peace with itself.  As we heard on Capitol Hill from Senator Richard Blumenthal, being shot and killed is the highest single cause of death for American teens accounting for 13% of deaths.  In some communities there are extraordinarily high rates of homicide by guns – for a black teen in America the risk of dying from gun crime is 15 times higher than for a white teen.  We also learned that the father of the leading campaigner against gun crime in the Reform Jewish world, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher was killed by a gun carrying burglar.   Joel’s name may be familiar to people here at Alyth as he worked for the Progressive Jewish youth movements in the early 1990’s in London before training as a Rabbi.

I don’t know what would come out of a UK Consultation on Conscience.  Would the prevention of violent crime also be an issue high on British Jew’s agenda?   In the UK it’s knife rather than gun crime which is of most danger to our teenagers and the numbers are not huge.   In 2014 eleven teenagers were murdered in London, almost all in knife attacks. The worst year for these recently was 2008 when twenty nine teens were killed.   These deaths were concentrated – most were in the Boroughs of Hackney, Lewisham, Southwark and Enfield with no teen murders in Barnet from 2012-2014 – though of course these figures conceal the many severe and maiming injuries from knife attacks.   In Britain as a whole homicide is not the top cause of death for teenagers thank God – although there are two areas in Glasgow where it is. (Eaton, BBC, 2008)

My Consultation on Conscience question about weapon crime in Britain then is does this bother us?  We are rather safe from knife and gun attacks – murders, not too frequent, happen elsewhere.   Should we be concerned?

The passage that we heard from the Torah today about the Red Heifer and its ritual use in the case of an explained fatality gives us an answer.   This is one of those tough passages of the Torah to make sense of.   That should never mean that we don’t read them in Shul! I feel that a good way to start is to ask ourselves what was worrying our ancestors that this legislation and ritual was necessary.  As you will see, though it is tough to make sense of we need to read it to hear their worries.

Rabbinic sources call the red heifer ritual a ‘hok’ – that is a mitzvah without explanation, like the rules about mixed fibres and the sowing of mixed seeds (‘shatnes’).  They say that a religious system cannot all be subject to rational explanation – there are rituals which mark out a religious culture and thus just are the way ‘we do things’.

It is not so difficult though to see what is concerning them.  I feel that what is worrying our ancestors here is that murder should be such a rare event that an unexplained murder must raise great public concern.   A society where killing is routine is, of course, one which has broken down.  In our world murders, where the ‘body is left in the open’ happen daily – drive by shootings, drug lord revenge killings etc.  They may not happen in middle class England but there are parts of our country where a young man is at much at risk from knife murder as death from a disease.

The red heifer “performance” says that an unexplained death, where the body is found out in the open must be a huge event, one which makes the whole land feel impure as a result. In a society where the death of animals for ritual purposes is normality the use of a whole cow for the ritual is not value laden except that it is a very costly way of marking the death of the murder victim.

The Red Heifer appears once before in the Torah – in Numbers Chapter 19 – again as a radical way to make the impure pure again.   Note that all the authorities of the town nearest to the body have to come out and declare on oath that they had nothing to do with this death (a declaration that is often up on the wall on a plaque at a Jewish cemetery today near the hand washing equipment!).  Hopefully doing so would make them reflect on the situation in their town whereby a murder could take place and take steps to prevent violence like this in the future. That was Isaac Abarbanel in 15th Century Lisbon’s interpretation of the passage. In the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) procedure is added to this ritual to thoroughly investigate if there were any witnesses to the murder and to deal with a situation of conflicting evidence.

The end of the Book of Deuteronomy is all about setting up a society in the Land of Israel that is true to Jewish values.  This proved almost impossible.  So much so that the Mishnah in Sotah 9:9 tragically records that in Israel of the turn of the millennium murder was so common that the ritual was discontinued even though the Temple still stood and red heifers could be found.  They say that the Temple was destroyed due to groundless hatred (sinat hinam) – a violent society where it’s “just another murder” cannot survive.

And that may well be the challenge for a British Consultation on Conscience for Reform Jews.   It’s not happening in our backyard so maybe it’s not our concern.    But once we are in a society where “just another murder” happens then surely we are all in trouble.   May we never as Jews shut our eyes to the reality of our society but rather be among those who care and use our power and influence to make a difference for all.