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Tzedek tzedek tirdof — Justice justice you shall pursue

Rabbi Binyomin and Gevura Davis

It was April 13, 2014.

Everyone in the Kansas City Jewish community remembers where they were when they heard about the shooting at the Jewish Community Campus. For us, it ranks right along with how our parents’ generation remembers where they were when JFK was shot, how our grandparents remember where they were when D-Day and Pearl Harbor occurred, and our peers remember the exact moment the twin towers went down. Even our 7-year-old daughter remembers 4/13.


Blessedly our family was not at the Campus.  {mprestriction ids="1,3"}Early that afternoon, the first report came of a lock-down at the Campus. Rumors were flying there was an armed suspect on the Campus. The frantic calls, texts and Facebook posts began coming from friends asking all to pray for their children who were trapped in the building — either exercising, at dance practice or auditioning for KC SuperStar, the Jewish Community Center’s singing contest fundraiser. Then the news rolled in. There was a second shooting, this time at the Jewish retirement home we visit weekly. The news travelled fast and furiously. An arrest. A neo-Nazi. The day was over. The feelings of shock, pain, betrayal and disbelief were just beginning.

One still spring Sunday shattered our community’s illusions of feeling safe forever. And a huge piece of our children’s innocence was broken beyond repair.

The day that Frazier Glenn Cross Jr. (also known as Frazier Glenn Miller) brazenly walked onto our Jewish community campuses and indiscriminately shot and murdered a young teen, his grandfather and a daughter visiting her mother changed our community and our family’s lives so dramatically. The JCC and Village Shalom are the places we both worked, exercised, dined and the place our children went to school, where we would meet friends and saw so many life-cycle events.

The proverbial thought that hate crimes against Jews happened elsewhere, in someone else’s back yard, was banished from our minds. 

In the following few days we saw our community transform from trusting and possibly naive to scared and confused. Policies changed. Armed guards were hired. New security positions were developed. And all of our children learned what the face of hate looked like in 2014. 

The funerals, memorials and rallies showed our strength and commitment to unity. We were honored to help lead a citywide teen youth groups pre-Shabbat service attended by thousands of people. As we stood hand-in-hand with the city’s teen leaders of all denominations, we saw teens crying, hugging and praying together to the tune of “lean on me.” Friends and students were calling us seeking Jewish wisdom, advice, support and words of encouragement. The only consolation we could think of was that we would not let hate and evil destroy us. We are joining all of our ancestors in the great battle of bringing more light into a world plagued with never ending darkness.

All of these emotions had diminished only slightly over the past 18 months. They have now resurfaced as we heard the news last week that the jury has recommended that Frazier Glenn Cross Jr. receive the death penalty. We are now feeling a whole new set of emotions, thoughts and feelings. Is more death really what the community needs to heal? Should he receive mercy even when he had none to give his victims? Will this serve as a deterrent to future murderers and terrorists?

As Jewish educators, when such moral and ethical questions and dilemmas arise we turn to the Torah for answers. Our rabbis have been discussing and analyzing these issues since even before the Jewish people became a nation and continue the discussions  today as modern situations arise that need moral clarity.

First of all, the most notable misconception of Torah law on capital punishment comes from the famous line in the Book of Exodus discussing a fight between two Jews, says the following: “…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25). The Talmud (Bava Kama 83b-84a) deduces from the oral law that this verse is referring to reprievement of financial damages. The Torah principle is that when someone harms someone else, the perpetrator must find a way to try to right the situation and give the fair amount of damages to the victim, not as way of seeking retribution and justice but as a practical tool in recovering a loss.

Secondly, it is well known that the Torah does in fact sanction the death penalty. It’s important to understand the circumstances, reasoning and practicality of this aspect of Torah law. One of the great Torah sages of our generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, states unequivocally (Igros Moshe, “Chosen Mishpat,” vol. 2, § 68) that unlike in current secular thought, the death penalty is not a punishment and way of making a murderer suffer just as he/she caused suffering. Judaism humbly recognizes that G-d is the ultimate judge of another’s actions and that is where the true judgement and punishment will be. Rather, the death penalty should serve as a deterrent to future crime and a way of teaching society how incredibly wrong it is to take a human life. Rabbi Feinstein further points out that there are several procedural safeguards to protect against the death penalty and to ensure that it only happens when there are a number of criteria met; all of this points to the great value Judaism places on human life. In fact, the Talmud concedes that a Jewish court that executed once in seven years, and according to another opinion, once in 70 years, was labeled a “murderous court” (Mishnah, Makkos 1:10). Furthermore, without a formal Jewish court system, which we haven’t had since the Temple was destroyed over 2,000 years ago, we don’t have the means to actually execute someone.  

There are many modern dilemmas that also arise. Will the appeals process cost taxpayers more money? Will a death sentence prolong the media attention and glory that this self-proclaimed neo-Nazi espouses? Will he be glorified as a martyr in his own mind and that of his like-minded sympathizers? Can we make peace with the fact that he might enjoy a long life in prison (though his poor health will most likely prevent this)? 

It seems that there are no right answers. The families of the victims lose either way, as do we all. What he did was beyond despicable. There are not enough adjectives to accurately describe the depravity and pain he is responsible for. He robbed two families of their precious and treasured loved ones, causing unthinkable pain. He created fear and pain throughout the entire Jewish community. For these terrible crimes there will be no retribution in this world, regardless of his sentence.

It is our sincere hope and prayer that this will be the last hate crime to speak of. That our children will feel comfortable looking and acting Jewish. That all of the added security will serve as a deterrent. And that G-d, the true judge, will bring justice and lasting peace to the world. 

Rabbi Binyomin and Gevura Davis recently left the Kanas City community after living here  eight years.  He served as the KC Kollel. She was the relgious school director at Kehilath Israel Synagogue. They now live in Philadelphia where they both work for Etz Chaim, a Jewish education and engagement organization.{/mprestriction}