On the Just Use of Force by Our Police

Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

President, Hebrew College
August 29, 2014

Community Blog Partnering on the PulpitThe tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has focused the nation’s attention once again on issues of justice related to the use of fatal force by police, especially against unarmed African-American men. The death of four black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles and Ohio this month has raised serious questions about the way some police officers respond to provocation and how the wheels of justice turn in the aftermath of such incidents.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read about the command to appoint officials to administer justice.

“You shall appoint judges and officers for your tribes in all of the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

We tend to focus on the word “judges” since it bespeaks a higher form of authority and the root of the word is repeated in verb form toward the end of the sentence. However, the second word in this opening verse, “shotrim,” from which the modern Hebrew term for police is derived, speaks more specifically to our current concern for justice occupying the daily headlines.

The word shotrim, often translated as “officers” or “officials,” is used to describe different groups of people elsewhere in the Torah. For instance, in the book of Exodus the term refers to the foremen whom the Egyptians set over the Israelite slaves to enforce the hard labor inflicted upon them. The foremen, shotrim, were actually chosen from the people forced into slavery, and in turn, were supervised by Egyptian taskmasters.

That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen (shotrim) of the people, saying, ‘You shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves … Let heavier work be laid upon the men …’ (Exodus 5:6-9).

The Israelite foremen are subsequently beaten when the work is not completed in the time allotted, and they complain to Pharaoh and ultimately blame Moses for causing more violence and hardship. In this case, the shotrim are coerced participants in the abusive system that is designed to break the will of the Israelite slaves. As officials of the Egyptian government, they are both perpetrators and victims of the injustice inflicted on their own people.

Later in the book of Deuteronomy, the word shotrim appears in the context of the mobilization of military troops in anticipation of war. These officials seem to be civilian authorities who are charged with administering military deferrals and appointing army commanders to lead the troops.

“When the officials (shotrim) have finished addressing the troops, they shall appoint army commanders at the head of the people.” (Deuteronomy 20:9).

The fact that the same term is used for officials administering military matters as for the officers commanded to administer daily justice, as described in this week’s Torah portion, points to the potential problem distinguishing boundaries between the military and the police.

By using the term shoftim in different ways, the Torah points to the complexity societies face in the use of state-sanctioned force in administering justice. It invites us to think carefully about how to do so responsibly, and what to do when there are individual or widespread abuses of this power.

The militarization of the police that has raised so many questions in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, and the ways police force can be used that are antithetical to our sense of decency, calls upon us to return to the fundamental biblical imperative articulated in the opening lines of our Torah portion: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

We must demand justice from both our judges (shoftim) and our officers (shotrim).

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