The role of a law enforcement officer is a sacred position of trust in our tradition. Even as little children re-enacting scenes of the wild west or police dramas, we relished being the respected marshal or policeman, who was charged with righteously enforcing the law. When we saw a bad cop portrayed in the movies or on television, we booed and when the US Marshal or detective saved the day, we cheered.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the tragic death of George Floyd, at the hands and knee of a policeman, has united most everyone in genuine outrage at this dreadful act; committed by someone charged with protecting everyone. Justice must be done and, in the case of George Floyd, this appears to be what is occurring.
The contrived reaction by some people, who are using this tragedy as a cover or pretense to commit violent crimes, including assault and battery, homicide, looting and arson, as well as antisemitic acts, is another matter. These reprehensible actions are totally abhorrent and the perpetrators of these crimes must also be brought to justice.
The message being communicated, reinforced by some politicians offering feckless excuses for their inability to defend the innocent, protect property and enforce the rule of law, is a painful admission of impotence. Respect for the rule of law is the bedrock of our society and civilization and seeing it flagrantly undermined is both galling and frightening. Perhaps, this is the insidious intent of the few reprobates reported to have incited and fueled these nefarious activities.
The Bible (Deut. 16:18) recognizes the need for a system of laws, judges and police. As Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Sanhedrin 1:1) notes, it is a positive commandment to appoint judges and police to judge and enforce, respectively, righteous laws. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 16b) explains that this includes local police in every region and city. The Midrash Sifrei (Deuteronomy 144:3) adds in every town, as well. Rashi notes that the police are to be armed so as to be in position to compel obedience to the law.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Shoftim 2:1) pithily summarizes this ethic, as absent law enforcement officers there are no judges. In essence, our system of laws and justice and by extension society is dependent on having police; it is a foundational element in civilization.
The position of police officer is sacred and revered in Judaism. To appreciate the sanctity of the role, the Talmud (Yevamot 86b) records that for a time, it was reserved only for the Levites. With the investment of authority come duties, as well. Thus, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b) enjoins a police officer to be extremely circumspect and careful with the use of force and the weapons at his or her disposal. The Tosafot posit that a law enforcement officer may not cause dread in the community or use excessive force; patience and restraint are required.
Those who might flatter themselves by flouting what they imagine to be their own new and enhanced sensitivity to issues of police brutality should consider that these thoughts were penned in the Talmud more than fifteen hundred years ago.
The Talmud (Shabbat 139a) cautions that judges and law enforcement officers must be honest and faithful in the performance of their duties. It describes how the Divine Presence will not rest until bad judges and policemen are eliminated. These are sacred positions of trust, and corruption or malfeasance can’t be tolerated.
The policing function includes not only actually enforcing the law, but also deterring violations. This includes patrolling areas where people gather on the holidays (Shuchan Aruch, OC 529:4) and, in general, so as to prevent crimes (Mishna Brurah 529:22). In this regard, Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk (Noam Elimelech, Devarim, Shoftim 1:2), the hassidic master, describes how police officers are associated with the good impulse in people. This is because they are able to engage a person before any harm is done. This is unlike a judge who only deals with the crime after the fact.
In essence, he believes, a police officer’s verbal warnings or even forceful actions can serve to prevent a person from sinning. They are able to provide a wake up call before a wrong is committed and thereby enable a person to reflect on his or her own deficiencies.
Don’t be misled by those purporting to promise heaven on earth by eliminating the police entirely. We live in the real world and the Torah prescribes having police officers. Ironically many of the politicians and celebrities touting the myth of no police are personally being protected by police officers or private security.
The commandment to appoint police officers is unconditional; as is the requirement they act properly. Holding our public officials to account for their misdeeds is the very essence of justice and law enforcement officers are no exception. However, the movement to defund and eliminate the police is antithetical to our traditions.
May G-d bless and protect the United States of America and the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers, who faithfully and diligently serve us and, as G-d intended, help keep us safe and secure. In the effort to condemn the few bad cops, don’t forget to honor and defend the many good ones, who have earned and deserve our heartfelt respect. Show your gratitude by saying thank you; it’s the least we can do. May true justice triumph and reinforce our trust in and respect for the rule of law. We are united because we care.
Leonard Grunstein, retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Bernard Revel at Yeshiva Univ. and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and more.