Rabbi Michael Knopf discusses how all of us share responsibility as members of this society for the death of Trayvon Martin.
BY: Rabbi Michael Knopf
In ancient Israel, a person who accidentally killed another was commanded to flee to one of six Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35:9-34; Deuteronomy 19:1-14). Ostensibly (and perhaps surprisingly), this protocol was intended to help protect the accidental killer from anyone seeking to avenge the death of his relative or friend. After arriving at the City of Refuge, he would be tried for his crime. If the court determined that he bore responsibility for the death, he would incur the death penalty. But if the court ruled that the death was truly inadvertent, he would stay in the City of Refuge until the death of the High Priest.
This teaching cannot help but remind me of the recent George Zimmerman murder trial. Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin and yet was found not guilty of murdering the teen, making him much like the accidental killer of ancient times who would have had to flee to the City of Refuge. Like the Torah’s accidental manslayer, Zimmerman will likely be branded a killer his whole life, and live in constant fear of reprisal from people who hold him accountable for Martin’s death.
As his brother said after the trial, “Clearly, he is a free man in the eyes of the court, but he's going to be looking around his shoulder for the rest of his life.”
Whether penance for the killing or fact of life, the result of killing accidentally, in the Torah as well as in Zimmerman’s case, is to live a life of marginalization and fear. Zimmerman, like his ancient parallels, may be acquitted of the charges, but he is by no means a free man.
That the Torah maintains consequences even for the accidental killer implies an assertion that few if any violent deaths are ever fully accidental or unavoidable. More importantly, virtually none occurs in a vacuum, sealed off from the broader community.
Recall that the accidental killer can only leave the City of Refuge following the death of the High Priest. According to Rabbi Bahye ben Asher, also known as Rabbenu Bahaye (Spain, 13th and 14th centuries), the fate of the accidental killer is connected to the death of the High Priest because the High Priest “atones for all the people Israel, and it was incumbent upon him to seek compassion for his entire generation, and he did not seek it. As a result, the sin of murder occurred during his time” (Rabbeinu Bahayei, Commentary to Numbers 35:25).
In other words, the High Priest bears responsibility. True, he is not guilty of the murder. He was likely nowhere near the crime. Despite this, the Torah presumes that, as the community’s leader and representative, he could have done something to prevent the violence. He is responsible for presiding over a community in which such violence was possible. The rest of the community, beginning with its leader, shares responsibility for the crime.
The High Priest’s death, then, is a symbolic gesture, like a purification offering. It atones not only for him, but also for his entire community. Inherent in implicating the priest is an assertion that the entire community bears responsibility, too. There is no such thing, the Torah maintains, as a purely accidental killing, and no unnecessary death occurs in a vacuum. The community is assumed to be able to create or inhibit the conditions for “the sin of murder” to occur in its midst. Legally speaking, there may be no murderer, but the whole community, along with the High Priest, is responsible for the sin, for they at least passively made a violent death possible.
The lesson of the accidental manslayer and the City of Refuge echoes the powerful words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that in a free society, “some are guilty, while all are responsible.”
I believe that Trayvon Martin’s blood cries this message out to us from the ground. None of us killed Martin, of course, but we are all responsible for a society in which this kind of tragedy is possible, perhaps even inevitable. And unless we engage in some serious communal heshbon ha-nefesh, self-examination and teshuvah, repentance and change, these tragedies will continue to happen.
For example, we share responsibility for creating a culture in which the popular conception of a typical criminal is a young black man. African-Americans make up less than half of the total male inmate population in state penitentiaries, federal prisons and local jails. Despite this fact, news, reality TV and popular culture portray young black men as criminals more often than other demographic groups. The dangerous and wrongheaded stereotype persists that a man of color is more prone to engage in criminal behavior than a similar fair-skinned individual.
Possessing this stereotype does not necessarily make Zimmerman, or any of us, racists. But it does mean that, on some level, our fears, assumptions, and biases about criminals and crime are not colorblind. Zimmerman’s suspicions, which began the chain of events that ended in Martin’s death, were likely heightened by Martin’s race. The color of his skin made him fit a pervasive criminal stereotype.
Furthermore, as Ekow Yankah, a Cardozo Law School professor, argues, it is possible that Martin’s race played an unspoken role in the trial. It could have contributed to the jury’s belief that Zimmerman’s self-defense argument was reasonably plausible. If so, then we are all responsible for creating, believing and perpetuating the stereotypes that piqued Zimmerman’s suspicions and colored the jury’s perception of the incident.
Moreover, the fact that we have the right to vote and protest means we share responsibility when our laws create the conditions for tragedies like Martin’s death. Our country’s laws grant the right to keep and bear arms, without many meaningful restrictions. Our states’ laws permitted Zimmerman to own and carry a concealed weapon, despite an arrest record and a history of violence.
We share responsibility for “Stand Your Ground” laws, which make tragedies like these far more likely. However the events of that fateful night actually transpired, it is nearly certain that if Zimmerman did not have a gun and was not emboldened by a potentially deadly self-defense statute, Martin would still be alive. Zimmerman may have fired the weapon, but we put it in his hand and gave him license, on numerous levels, to use it.
We have the power to challenge our own — and our society’s — stereotypes. We have the power to protest unjust, immoral or unwise laws, to advocate for better ones and to vote for the leaders who make and sign our laws. No one may be guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, but in our free society, we are all at least partially responsible for his death.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple, a conservative synagogue in Penn Valley.