Forward Thinking

Saving Trayvon Martin — With Jewish Law

By Eliyahu Federman

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Under Jewish law one must protect oneself by injuring, instead of killing, a potential assailant, unless killing is the only option. One is also required to avoid any situation in which one’s life may be placed in danger.

If George Zimmerman had abided by these simple principles, he should have chosen to avoid conflict and danger, if at all possible. He should have only used enough force necessary to protect his life when he confronted Trayvon Martin in a Sanford, Fla. subdivision on February 26, 2012.

He might never would have opened fire and certainly wouldn’t have shot to kill. Trayvon Martin might be alive today.

Trials for defendants should take place in courts of law, not courts of public opinion. The point here is not to second-guess the jury, but to look at the facts from a perspective in Jewish law and perhaps draw lessons on where policy can be improved to avoid the likelihood of such tragedies.

Under so-called Stand Your Ground laws, a person is not required to avoid conflict and has no duty to retreat from a potentially dangerous encounter. If you can safely retreat to avoid injury, Jewish law requires you do that.

The New York Times reported that Zimmerman earned an A in a college class that delved into Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Thus, Zimmerman’s intimate knowledge of Stand Your Ground laws may have influenced his decision to follow Martin that fateful night (even though it was not invoked in his defense at trial). He knew that legally he would not have to retreat if a confrontation ensued.

Despite a 911 dispatcher’s request that he not follow Martin, it appears that Zimmerman continued to follow Martin, or at least got of his car. That amounted to unnecessarily putting himself in a potentially dangerous situation.

The Torah says, “[t]ake utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously.” (Deuteronomy 4:9, 15). Taking care of ones life was later codified by the Rambam in his code of Jewish law. (Rotzei’ach 11:4 and the Hoshen Mishpat 427:8).

Rabbis have understood this to mean that any unnecessary action that presents an immediate danger, such as entering a burning building, or walking on a rickety bridge that may collapse. Even putting coins in one’s mouth lest they transmit bacteria, is prohibited. (See Rabbi Yaakov Etlinger in Binyan Zion 137, Rosh Hashanah 16b, and Yerushalmi ibid. 8:3). It is fair to extrapolate from the prohibition against unnecessarily endangering yourself that chasing a suspicious looking person with a gun, in the middle of the night - would be considered an unnecessarily dangerous activity (far more dangerous than putting coins in your mouth that may have bacteria).

It is not as if it was Zimmerman’s job to get out of his car with a gun in the middle of the night to follow someone whom he suspected was up to no good. He called the police because he knew it wasn’t his job to enter this potentially life-threatening situation.

Based on the statements that Martin looked “suspicious,” and was “up to no good,” Zimmerman suspected that the teenager was potentially dangerous. Yet he still followed him into the darkness.

Following Martin may well be legal under U.S. law. But Judaism does not allow one to purposefully and unnecessarily enter a dangerous situation.

During the confrontation, Zimmerman shot the unarmed teenager with a 9-mm bullet to the chest. Assuming that Zimmerman had the right to defend himself, he would still be required, under Jewish law, to use the least amount of force necessary to prevent the attack. If killing is not required to prevent an attack, Jewish law requires injuring the assailant, by striking a limb for example.

“If there is any other way to stop the Rodef [attacker] short of killing him, then one who does not employ that alternate method is plain and simple, a murderer.” (See Rambam’s Hilchos Rotzei’ach 1:13).

It would seem that a 9-mm bullet to any part of the body would have immobilized Martin. Did Zimmerman need to shoot him in his vital zones? Directly in his chest? Could he have shot his leg? Some other limb? Maybe even a warning shot?

Was there excessive force? It is hard to say with certainty, but given Zimmerman’s extensive gun training and the fact that Martin was unarmed, one would think he could have maimed him or fired a warning shot.

Trayvon Martin would still be alive today.

And George Zimmerman wouldn’t have to live the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion and mistrust.

Eliyahu Federman graduated from City University of New York law school, where he served as executive editor of law review. He received his theological training at Mayanot and the Rabbinical College of America.


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