Thursday, July 7, 2011

On Caylee Anthony - Reform Judaism

Many thanks to the wisdom of my classmate, Alan Cook, on this terrible moment in time.

by Rabbi Alan Cook
Associate Rabbi, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Seattle, WA

The gut reaction of many to the acquittal verdict in the Casey Anthony trial is understandable. We weep for the unrealized promise represented by Caylee Anthony and long for a sense of vengeance, or at least some degree of closure that will enable us to derive some sort of sense from what is an unfathomably horrible crime.

A 2-year-old child is dead. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine any parent reacting so cavalierly to the knowledge that grievous harm has come to their child. Do I think that Casey Anthony was a bad mother? Yes, I do. Do I believe that she had a role in her daughter's death, or at least in the subsequent cover-up? Personally, I do. Do I (in the words of many on Twitter and Facebook and in the media) "know she's guilty"? Absolutely not. I cannot presume to.

Though our legal system may be flawed in some ways, a significant positive feature is the general presumption of innocence it guarantees. The prosecutors in Florida had the task of proving to the jurybeyond a reasonable doubt that Casey Anthony played a role in her daughter's death. Hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and "gut feelings" were all irrelevant. They may serve to convict Casey on Nancy Grace's show and in the court of popular opinion, but they are insufficient in our actual justice system.

And, if we think about it--if we are able for a moment to divorce ourselves of all the emotion we have invested in this case--we wouldn't want it any other way. While I certainly pray that no one reading this would ever dream committing an act as heinous as those of which Casey Anthony is accused, if there were ever circumstances that brought us to stand trial in a criminal case, we would want our attorneys to exhaust every resource at hand to prove our innocence. And in the end, we would hope that judge and jury would mete out justice according to the evidence rather than according to instinct.

While this is what logic would dictate, I certainly appreciate that it runs counter to emotion. Such instances can lead us to question whether justice really exists. According to Midrash, it was a similar case that led Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya into apostasy.

As the story goes, Elisha was walking down the road one day when he spied a boy climbing a tree to retrieve some bird eggs. In accordance with Deuteronomy 22:6-7, the boy shooed away the mother bird before gathering the eggs. Elisha smiled, noting that the boy was fulfilling a mitzvah, and doing so at the urging of his parent, two acts which the Torah connects to long life. He was then horrified to see the boy fall from the tree and die, contravening the Torah's promise. In his shock, Elisha cried out, "Leit din v'leit dayan--there is no justice and there is no Judge!"

This was, as in the case of our responses to Casey Anthony, a gut reaction, and again, perhaps a natural one. Yet what Elisha failed to recognize is that there are many moving parts to divine justice, just as there are many moving parts in our modern court system. We mere mortals are not privy to all the inner workings of either system.

When God prepares to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham enters into a sort of plea-bargain to see whether God is willing to reconsider. In his opening argument, Abraham inquires, "hashofet kol ha-aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat--shall not the Judge of the whole world deal justly?"

So God tries...tries to find fifty worthy men, then forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then finally ten. And finally God must mete out the punishment that has been ordained, for there are not even ten people in the city worthy of redemption. The Judge of the whole world has attempted to deliver justice. And, at least according to some standard, the Judge has failed.

It happens sometimes. It's an imperfect system. We try to maintain faith that, at least in the long run, all balances out. The scofflaws and evildoers get punished, and the good guys get rewarded. Maybe it doesn't work on the individual level, but we pray it does in some cosmic, karmic way.

So, go ahead and weep for the loss of Caylee Anthony, and the apparent injustice of her mother going free.

But you're in good company. For in some corner of the cosmos, the Judge of the whole world is silently weeping too.

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