Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Trayvon and the Torah

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2013 at 10:11 am

Like so many of us, I am still haunted and bewildered by the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Having fully anticipated and expected George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I follow the nation’s focus on the behavior and the laws that sowed the seeds for this lethal confrontation.

I wondered whether–other than vague platitudes–would the tradition directly and specifically address this incident, and provide some insight. After sniffing around my virtual books for a couple of hours, the answer, as it were, was right there under my nose.

For over twenty-five years I have been involved with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, and for a time, I directed the program in its incipient years. One of the enduring components of the program is the first Jewish text that is taught for orientation.

Yehoshua Ben Perachya said: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for youself a friend,and judge each person favorably. (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri, a thirteenth century sage, says the following on this passage:

When one witnesses any activity of any person who is unknown to him, and there are two ways his activity might be understood, either positively, or negatively, one should presume the benefit of the doubt for that individual, and not assume they are doing anything wrong. (Beit Habechirah on Pirkei Avot Chapter 1)

The presumption of good intentions is a fundamental component for bringing peace between people, and by assuming the worst one often gets something much worse than what was feared. The Meiri interprets the words “any person” literally to mean just that–not any Jew, but anybody!

Maybe it is reasonable to call the police on an unfamiliar face in the neighborhood, and maybe not, but to be absolutely certain that the stranger was up to no good, is an egregious violation of this principle. Zimmerman’s self appointment as a one man militia hiding behind a law that encourages violence and confrontation among strangers is the true tragedy of what happened and according to the Meiri, the Talmud has taught this for nearly two thousand years.


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