The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Hurricane Katrina – law and order

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  1. The brutal anarchy reported from certain places affected by Hurricane Katrina, particularly in shelters resorted to by those displaced from their homes, vividly and horrifyingly illustrates the warning of the rabbis in pirkei ovos (3:2) that we should pray for the welfare of the state machinery because without it each person would swallow his neighbour alive.
  2. This striking piece of imagery is chosen, says the gemoro (avodoh zoroh 72) to create a picture of the strong bullying and exploiting the weak in much the same way as the larger fish in the sea habitually swallow those smaller than them: without either compassion or active hostility or dislike, but merely as an instinctive product of an all-absorbing self-interest.
  3. That instinctive self-interest is entirely natural to the animal world: and it is entirely natural to man but can be modified by discipline.  One form of discipline is that imposed by the rule of law, the state machinery in its widest aspects, for which the rabbis exhort us to pray.
  4. But the rule of law is always fragile: quite how fragile, we have seen in the reports of behaviour during this most recent disaster in America.  Its effectiveness depends entirely on the strength of those controlling the law, and their ability to restrain a partly reluctant population, many of whom are aware that the forces constraining them are themselves vulnerable to many greater forces, both natural and unnatural. When one of those greater forces intervenes to prevent the enforcement of law and order, chaos erupts.
  5. For this reason the Maggid of Kelm stresses that in this morning’s Torah reading the injunction to appoint judges and policemen (Devorim 16:18) is phrased in the second person singular, not plural.  He therefore reads it as including a requirement for each person to develop methods of self-discipline, which will regulate, condition and train his or her selfish instincts more effectively and permanently than can be achieved by the imposition of outside constraints.
  6. A society that wishes the weak to be protected, and that wishes to see expounded in practice the Torah principles of kindness, sharing and caring, should see the forces of law and order only as a secondary line of recourse; the front line of the enterprise should be the task of educating and encouraging people to discipline themselves in matters of civic and community responsibility.
  7. In England today citizenship is a compulsory part of the curriculum for secondary school students.  If taught imaginatively and creatively it can cause young people to think of themselves and others in an entirely new way.  An urgent message of the lawlessness seen in America in the past two weeks is that too many people are being allowed to reach adulthood without acquiring a sufficient sense of citizenship to act as a control on their animal instincts of selfishness once the physical constraints of law and order are relaxed.
  8. Let us as Jews, with  a mission inherited from our father Abraham who taught the whole world a concept of kindness based on the monotheist vision of all people as brothers and sisters created by a single God for a single purpose, resolve not merely to pray for the continued power of the forces of law and order but also to do whatever we can to provide an example of responsible citizenship and to encourage others to emulate it.
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Written by Daniel Greenberg

September 10, 2005 at 12:00 am

One Response

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  1. Nice post, very intresting everyday you learn something new on internet lol

    Megan L

    September 4, 2011 at 10:03 am


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