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.
Apparently oblivious to how offensive this would be to any non-messianic Jew, Atlanta pastor Eddie Long — who privately settled lawsuits with several men who had alleged he molested them as boys, and whose wife recently divorced him for the same reason — allowed himself to be wrapped in a Torah scroll by messianic ‘Jew’ Ralph Messer.
It gets both more outrageous, and more absurd. Messer, speaking “on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel,” anointed Long as a “king” to the rousing cheers of the crowd. He seated Long on a “throne” (actually a comfy-looking leather chair) and draped him in a small-size tallit, the kind you find at nice conservative shuls across the country. Messer explained that the Torah scroll was 312 years old, and found at “Auschwitz-Birkendau” (that’s how he pronounced it, several times). “It was a Holocaust scroll,” he said, adding “I collect scrolls.”
There were additional details that doubtless escaped notice of casual visitors, but which get progressively more offensive the more knowledgeable one is. For example, Messer described removing the Torah’s cover as “removing the foreskin.” And at the climax of the ritual, after wrapping Long in the Torah, he placed the scroll’s gartel (belt) around Long himself, stating that Long had become the Torah, become the King. Fascinatingly, this is exactly the corporealizing ritual performed by heretical Sabbatean groups, except here with a Christianizing gloss (“the word become flesh”) that makes Long into the Messiah Himself.