In Stephen Sondheim’s timeless West Side song “Officer Krupke,” one of the Jets proclaims to the faux cop: “Gee Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again! This boy don’t need a shrink, he needs a year in the pen! It ain’t just a problem of misunderstood. Deep down inside him he’s no good!”
“Gee Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again! This boy don’t need a shrink, he needs a year in the pen! It ain’t just a problem of misunderstood. Deep down inside him he’s no good!”One of the characters in West Side Story in the song "Officer Krupke"
This is a Talmudic argument, and not just because it pits two opposing philosophies about the causes of crime against each other. The Talmud tells us that in the perennial debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we typically follow the views of Beit Hillel. Why? Because Beit Hillel would occasionally concede to the arguments of Beit Shammai.
Sondheim was a passionate liberal. Yet, the “Officer Krupke” song lampoons the liberal idea that criminal behavior can be explained by root causes like dysfunctional home life, even as it brilliantly articulates the two sides of the cultural divide that remain in full force today. Such humility is befitting of the House of Hillel.
The Jewish passion for social justice in our era
We are in need of such humility today. The Jewish passion for social justice in our era is marked by the prophetic voice. The prophetic voice is the voice of moral clarity. There is no ambivalence in Moses’s relay of God’s demand to Pharoah: “Let my people go!” or in Amos’s call for the rich to remove their foot from the neck of the poor. When we speak from the prophetic perspective, there is no room for negotiation or compromise. “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof!” we are commanded in Deuteronomy in ringing tones. “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” There is a clear right and a clear wrong. And we are bidden to choose the right path.
The rabbis were well aware of the prophetic nature of the words “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof.” But they chose to give these words a creative twist. Since the word tzedek appears twice, the rabbis commented: “One (Tzedek) is for judgment. The other is for compromise.”
The rabbis are saying that there are some moral situations where there is some Tzedek/right on both sides. Justice requires not the defeat of evil by good, but dialogue, listening and compromise.
For several decades, the dominant voice of the Jewish community was the prophetic voice. The defeat of segregation, the ending of the Vietnam War, and the championing of the rights of women and LGBQT required the politics of protest and moral clarity. There is still a need for moral clarity. The prophetic voice was needed at Charlottesville. There were not “fine people on both sides.”
But many of the key problems of our time require us to navigate moral complexity. Sondheim recognized this in 1957. Six decades later, we are still picking sides between the people who think the solution to crime is “a shrink,” and those who think it’s “a year in the pen,” as if there is no moral ground in between. America is polarized at a dangerous level. On both sides of the political divide, we are overusing our prophetic voice. But issues like immigration policy, criminal justice reform, and fighting poverty involve nuanced thinking, compromise, and the ability to integrate multiple perspectives. This is where our rabbinic voice is needed.
Needing the rabbinic voice for nuanced thinking and compromise
A unique feature of Jewish ethical sensitivity is our ethical bilingualism. Traditionally, we have responded to ethical questions in both the prophetic voice and the rabbinic voice. In Genesis 18, when God confides in Abraham that He is about to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responds: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty! Shall not the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” In both rhetorical style and substance, Abraham is using his prophetic voice.
Ever so quickly, Abraham switches tactics – he begins to bargain with God. “What if there should be 50 innocent within the city…45…10? Won’t you spare the cities on their account?” Abraham is no longer arguing that this is a matter of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil. Rather, that there is good and evil within each human being, and with the right influences, even an evil person can become good. Now Abraham is talking like a rabbi.
Moses, too, is ethically bilingual. When Moses grows up, he leaves Pharaoh’s palace and sees and an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave. Outraged, he strikes the taskmaster and kills him. At this moment, Moses is operating in a binary world of clear evil vs. clear good. It’s a world tailor-made for prophecy.
The next day, Moses sees two Jews beating each other up. He says to the wicked one, “Why do you strike your fellow?” The man responds: “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses realizes that fighting injustice is more complicated than defeating the evil outsider: what happens when there is evil within your own people? With this insight, Moses the prophet becomes Moshe Rabbeinu.
We live at a unique moment in Jewish history. For the first time in nearly two millennia, we are in a position to think beyond our own survival and be players on the world stage. Where can our distinctively Jewish voice add value? There is still plenty of need for our prophetic voice. But in our prophetic role, we used to assume there was alignment on what is justice. Today, the battleground has shifted. The very definition of justice is up for grabs. Within the “justice movement” we can no longer agree on the definition of the most basic categories of injustice, like antisemitism and racism. In this context, we need our rabbinic voice to help us navigate increasingly complex moral waters.
Which voice to use and when? This is a place where we as a Jewish people with thousands of years of ethical bilingualism can make a unique contribution to the global conversation. ■
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is rabbi emeritus of Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation in Mercer Island, WA.