Why I Went to the White House

Rabbi Andy Kastner


Around the world this week, the Torah portion read this week is entitled Shoftim (Judges). This portion seeks to set forth a system of justice and a culture of political and social responsibility. The Torah lays out guidelines for the appointment of social stewards, beginning with judges and legal officers, and continuing onto kings, priests and prophets. It outlines the procedures for taking testimony and going to war.

The parshah (Torah portion) ends with a perplexing few verses, illustrating the mysterious ceremony of the ‘eglah arufa’ or ‘calf with a broken neck.’ This esoteric ritual was performed after a dead body is found between two cities with no clear implication of responsibility or jurisdiction. Here the Torah grapples with the nature of responsibility and accountability when the justice system fails.

The Torah sets the scene: “If in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, any one is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him.” So, “your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain; and the elders of the city which is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer which has never been worked and which has not pulled in the yoke. And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley…and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley… And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed…”

A radical re-reading of the ‘eglah arufa’ ceremony is found in the Mishnah (Sotah 9:6) as our sages redefine the nature of social responsibility.

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Commenting on the instruction that the elders of the city wash their hands in water… and proclaim, “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see,” the Mishnah asks an obvious question: “Would it really occur to us that the elders of the court were murderers?” Of course they weren’t responsible for this killing! The response provided in the Mishnah is that the elders mean precisely to take responsibility for the crime in a more nuanced way: “We did not host [the dead person], and did not provide food for him; we did not see him off on his journey, and we allowed him to leave our city without accompaniment.” The Mishnah reinterprets the ceremony to be a reflection of the community and its leaders. In other words, the eglah arufa ceremony forces the leaders to proclaim, ‘this could have been prevented, and the fact that it wasn’t lays the responsibility at our feet’.

In a place where the jurisdiction of responsibility is unclear, in the case of the vulnerable -those without the safety nets of support, those who lack an advocate fall, we are called upon to feel a collective responsibility. We must respond and identify systemic responses to prevent this in the future. The Jewish approach to social responsibility is not simply to identify the weaknesses of our systems of justice, but rather to rectify our missteps and develop proactive methods of support. The ceremony of the eglah arufa, is a model of introspective social justice and reactive activism, a stepping stone to systemic justice.

On Friday, July 29, I had the honor of joining 170 Jews representing 21 Jewish social justice organizations as part of the Jewish Social Justice Round Table to address top White House officials. Our goal was to make clear that developing policies and growing an economy that is aligned with our values is at the top of the Jewish communal agenda. Throughout the day small groups met with White House change agents to discuss health care, housing, education and food justice. As a representative of St. Louis Hillel and American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I had the opportunity to address the USDA to explore ways that the next US Farm Bill can better address the inequity and food sovereignty issues that plague the most vulnerable in America, and those in the developing world. With the 2012 presidential election and the 2012 Farm Bill, a complex and little understood policy including 15 titles affecting many of the areas that dictate human survival (including the cost, safety and access to food, foreign trade and environmental policy) we stand at the cusp of possibility and change. Whether change will emerge from these meetings will depend on the stewardship of the relationships we forged, but I felt empowered by the feeling of being surrounded by our organized Jewish community committed to a shared vision of justice in the world.

Inspired by the vision of the eglah arufah, to take responsibility for those who fall through the cracks, Jewish social justice today seeks to take this sensitivity to the next level; fostering a community committed to coalition building, activism and forward thinking as a way to proactively provide for those most in need. At the heart of Jewish social justice, is having a deep understanding of the issues at stake and sharing a common fate with the vulnerable in our communities.

I invite you to discover your own role in affecting change and join me in this conversation.

D’var Torah: Shoftim

Rabbi Andy Kastner is the Silk Foundation Campus Rabbi

at St. Louis Hillel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

See photos from Rabbi Kastner’s trip at www.stljewishlight.com