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Moral Outrage -Then and Now

September 12, 2016

Over the Labor Day weekend I read a fascinating article about the controversy that is brewing a little ways up the road from us in Frederick, MD (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/05/us/he-denied-blacks-citizenship-now-a-city-is-deciding-his-statues-fate.html?_r=0).  For 85 years the city has displayed a bronze bust of one of its own who left a significant mark on US history – He was the Chief Justice of Supreme Court and wrote the majority opinion on one of the court’s most famous and important decisions.  Wouldn’t any city be proud to honor such a person.  The problem in Frederick is that the Supreme Court Justice was Roger Brooke Taney (I always thought it is TAE-nee, but apparently the correct pronunciation is TAW-nee).  He is best known as the author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scot case, the landmark 1857 decision in which Blacks –even free Blacks —  were denied the right to be citizens.  The decision was seen as instrumental in the Southern States’ efforts to expand slavery and was one of the catalysts of the Civil War.  Many consider it to be the worst ruling ever issued by the Supreme Court.

Despite the controversy surrounding Taney’s legact, the city of Frederick still honored its native son with the statue perched in front of city hall.  But in October 2015 the Board of Aldermen gave in to the protests that had been mounting for years, and voted unanimously to remove the statue from its place in front of City Hall and find a less prominent place to display it – a museum or something similar.  But now they have a bigger problem.  In the midst of the debate over the statue, someone poured red paint on it.  And now they can’t give the statue away.  As the NYT reports:

“In a thus-far fruitless effort to fulfill the board’s wish that the statue not be “stuck in someone’s attic,” the mayor’s office has been scouring the local landscape for someone, anyone, willing to publicly display a 30-inch bust of a vilified chief justice. The city will also throw in the four-foot-high granite base — and will pay the moving costs.”

The city of Frederick is not alone in confronting these difficult questions.

All of these cases raise two important questions:

The first question, which is a fascinating one to explore, but not for today is that of “presentism” – the phenomenon of judging historical figures based on current moral standards?  Should be we be more lenient when assessing the actions of historical figures who lived in different times?

The second question, which I will focus on today, and which has a direct connection to our Parsha is: How do we relate to wrongs perpetuated by others?

The Torah addresses this at the very end of Parshat Shoftim with the curious ritual of the eglah arufah.  (Devarim 21:1-9)

The Torah describes the situation when a corpse is found on the road in between two cities.  No one knows how the corpse got there or who killed him/her.  We are instructed to measure to the closes city and the elders of that city perform a ritual where they behead a heifer that has not been worked at all on land that has not been worked and declare:

יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שפכה [שָֽׁפְכוּ֙] אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ׃

“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Sota 46b which asks the obvious question:

וכי עלתה על לב שזקני בית דין שופכי דמים הם

Does anyone really think that the elders of the Beit Din are murderers?!

So what is going on here?  Why the need to declare their innocence and ask for atonement?

The Torah tells us that the ceremony takes place in a נחל איתן which Rashi translates as

 אל נחל איתן. קשה, שלא נעבד:

Rough, rocky land which has never been worked.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, one of the Rashei Yeshiva at the Yeshivat Har Etzion explains that the ceremony:

is a statement on the part of the participants that the blood of the victim must not be drawn into the ground, to be absorbed and forgotten. The corpse should really remain exposed as a sign and never be buried, in order to serve as a permanent reminder for the people to continually examine themselves and their degree of responsibility for the murder. Since in practical terms this would violate the dignity of the dead, the Torah prescribes the egla arufa as a “compromise” – but its blood must not be absorbed in the ground. (http://etzion.org.il/en/atonement-egla-arufa)

The Chizkuni has a very different understanding of נחל איתן, but agrees with the basic thrust of the message.  Chizkuni translates it as נהר איתן – a strong rushing river.  Rav Medan explains:

This would be a fertile area, with fields suitable for cultivation. But once the egla arufa is brought here – “it shall not be ploughed, nor sown.” When the murder was perpetrated, the ground absorbed the victim’s blood. A sin was committed against the ground: it was used, so to speak, in the course of a despicable act. It is for the sin against the ground that the egla arufa is brought, and this ground will no longer cooperate in bringing forth produce.

In other words, the detail of נחל איתן emphasizes that the murder of this nameless victim cannot go unnoticed.

Nechama Leibowitz’s explanation of the ritual resonates very strongly with me given the cycle of events that fill our newsfeeds.

“We know too well the indifference that prevails among people regarding the miseries of others.  Anyone hearing of a murder, either then or now, would shake his head, go his own way and the world would continue as before.”  The goal of the eglah arufah ceremony was “to shock all redisents of the neighboring localities with the tidings that a murdered man had been found in the vicinity.”

We must recognize a tragedy when it strikes.  We cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to troubling news and events.  And we must recognize the infinite value of each human being.

Unfortunately, our ancestors were not able to maintain the sensitivity and sense of outrage that the Torah demands.  The Gemara in Sotah 47a reports:

משרבו הרוצחין בטלה עגלה ערופה

When the murderers increased the rite of the beheaded heifer was abolished.

And it is through this perspective that I return to the story of Chief Justic Taney, President Woodrow Wilson and Curly Byrd.

On the one hand we must recognize the infinite worth of every individual – even, or especially those who were marginalized by society.  It is right and proper to be upset over the wrongdoings of the past even if we had no direct part in it and even if we have no benefit.  As humans, we should be deeply concerned.  And so just like the נחל איתן where the eglah arufah ceremony took place shows that society must recognize injustices carried out we too have a responsibility to recognize the injustices that have been carried out and continue to be carried out.

I would like to conclude with the words of Dr. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, explaining the decision to try and make amends for the school’s participation in the slave trade.  His words very much embody the spirit of the eglah arufah:

“This community participated in the institution of slavery, This original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic was present here. We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth.”
“As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history.  We must acknowledge it.”  Good Shabbos.

 

 

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