This past week we observed the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. Our city burned as the anger about the Rodney King verdicts reached a fever pitch, absolving the white police officers from using police brutality against Rodney King. Even though before our very eyes the grainy black and white video showed officers using their batons and feet to whip and kick a downed Rodney King who was pulled over for a traffic violation. He had skull fractures and brain and kidney damage from the severe beating in 1991.
In the spring of the next year, the trial of the white police officers led to three acquittals and a mistrial. The trial was held in the predominately white area of the county, Simi Valley. This set off the riots across town in which 55 people died, more than 2000 people were hurt and property damage reached a staggering $1 billion dollars.
Race relations in Los Angeles County were at a new low not only between African Americans and Whites but in the Korean community, Latino community, Japanese community as well. Everyone was on edge as buildings burned and stores were looted and people were even pulled from their cars.
Buildings might not be burning today but relations between different communities are not any better. Sure there are interfaith gatherings of leaders on occasion. But as I experienced during the Post Prop 8 days, progressive religious leaders and conservative religious leaders or ethnic community leaders don’t dialogue enough despite efforts to build bridges of understanding. Los Angeles County although diverse doesn’t do enough to create opportunities for different communities to know one another. And I believe that many of the race and religious problems in Los Angeles remain simmering just under the cover of civility.
This week’s Torah portion Emor in the book of Leviticus offers us some of the first interfaith advice that includes not only civility but sincerity. Leviticus 22:5 reads: “And from the hand of a gentile you shall not offer up as food for your God any of these [blemished animals], for their injury is upon them, there is a defect on them; they will not be accepted for you.” This verse teaches us that a non-Jew, a foreigner may offer a sacrifice to God in the Jewish way! Even though according to other laws a Gentile (a non-Jew) can use animal that has blemishes, here in the holy precincts of the Mishkan the non-Jew must only offer pure and whole sacrifices. As the great commentator Rashi says:
[lit., “and from the hand of a foreigner,” i.e.,] if a non-Jew brought a sacrifice and handed it over to the Kohen to offer it up to Heaven, you shall not offer up on his behalf any blemished animal. And even though blemished animals are not deemed invalid as sacrifices from the children of Noah [i.e., by all non-Jews] unless they have a limb missing-that [rule] applies [only] to private altars in the fields. However, on the altar in the Mishkan, you shall not offer them up (Temurah 7b). You shall, however, accept an unblemished animal from them. That is why Scripture states earlier in this passage (verse 18 above), אִישׁ אִישׁ, “Any man whatsoever,” [where this double expression comes] to include non-Jews, who make vows and donations like Israelites. — [Temurah 2b].
In other words, even Rashi explains that in this case-a non-Jew’s offering is to be welcomed and that the offering even though it doesn’t have to be the same –you treat him with the same dignity as the Israelite!
In a place where distinctions matter, in the sacred Tent, in a matter of praising God and making sacrifice to God the gentile’s offering and the Israelite offering are on same footing. No blemishes are allowed in the sacred precincts-no impurities but the gentile is not considered impure or so different that they are not allowed to bring sacrifices unlike in many other religions where those of different ideologies and clans cannot participate!
This teaches us I think about the humanity and dignity of those that are from different groups and different backgrounds.
If we learned anything from the Rodney King case we must treat all equally and fairly under the law. And we must root out racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and all the other bigotries that too often plague our society.
Yes, the Torah said it best: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.