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I am my brother's keeper

I am my brother’s keeper
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide

As I reflected back on the horrifying murder of George Floyd in recent days, I found myself thinking about the burden of proof required by Jewish law for a person to be convicted of murder. The Torah already makes such a conviction quite difficult: two eyewitnesses are required for a conviction in a crime for which the punishment is the death penalty. This is a higher burden of proof than what is required in our current legal system. All that is needed in 2020 is for a jury to be persuaded of someone's guilt, however that goal is met. But strict as the requirements in the Torah are, the rabbis found that standard to be too lenient. By the time of the Talmud, the rabbis require not only that there be two witnesses to the crime, but that both of those witnesses have independently attempted to convince the perpetrator not to commit the murder. For years I taught that such a situation was impossible. Clearly someone who was intending to take the life of another human being would do so secretly, in a way that made sure there was not even one witness, much less two. This week, I had to take my words back. It was a stunning realisation for me.

It turns out that there are people who are capable of deliberately snuffing out a human life in front of not only two witnesses but a whole crowd of people pleading with them to stop. There are people who are capable of committing this atrocity with the full awareness that they are being filmed. I have yet to be able to wrap my head fully around this reality. Like many others, I have read furiously on the issue of police brutality, and am deeply disheartened to see that even the introduction of mandatory body cameras for police officers across the United States has done nothing to diminish deaths in custody of African Americans. There are three such deaths on average each day. Troubling stories of additional deaths have emerged in the days since George Floyd’s life was stolen away. What is equally dismaying is the fact that convictions of police officers, even when the evidence has been recorded in a video, are extremely rare. I do hope that the murderer of George Floyd will spend a long, long time in prison for what he did.

Of course, we here in Australia can hardly claim to be doing better. As I’m sure you will have heard, more than 400 Aboriginal Australians have died at the hands of police since 1991, when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody issued sweeping recommendations about how to prevent these deaths from occurring. Nearly 30 years later, many of those urgent recommendations have yet to be implemented. One result is to sow mistrust among Aboriginal Australians for police officers as potential peace keepers. Both African Americans and Aboriginal Australians are understandably reluctant to call the police, even in life-threatening situations.        

Rabbi Danny Schiff shared his thoughts on the murder of George Floyd on Facebook. He noted that the very first question asked by a human being in the Torah comes straight after a murder. Cain is asked by God, "Where is your brother Abel?" And answers, "Am I brother's keeper?" The answer, says Rabbi Schiff, is emphatically yes. And when asked who is my brother, and the answer must be that every human being is my brother or sister. Many people bristle at the slogan “Black lives matter,” because they say that all lives matter. And of course they do. But we live in societies that demonstrably value white lives more. And so it is incumbent on all of us to stand with our Black brothers and sisters.

A number of years ago, after yet another Aboriginal black death in custody, I found out about a demonstration on the steps of Parliament House and decided to attend. It was a surprising event for me. There were  only a few hundred people assembled, and a lot of them greeted one another as old friends who had been fighting this lonely war for a long time. The opening speaker started his remarks by thanking everyone for showing up yet again. It was impossible not to hear the tired resignation in his voice. For many of us, these issues are important, but there are almost always issues that are more important. I admit I’ve written numerous emails to my local member about climate change and asylum seekers, but almost none about the issues facing Aboriginal Australians. In this way, I have failed black Australians.

This is the point in the sermon when I'm supposed to tie everything up with a neat bow. But I can't do that right now. Events are still unfolding and, by just about any measure, things are getting worse. We have seen shocking acts of police brutality in recent days in the US but also here in Australia. All of this is layered on top of months of anxiety in dealing with Covid-19. If I tried to tie a bow right now, I fear it would unravel. Instead, I think the most honest thing is to leave the questions and the heartache hanging in the air. Perhaps together we can find a way forward. Shabbat shalom. 

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