By Rabbi Charles Arian
The late Rabbi Richard Israel once published an essay that he later expanded into a book called “The Kosher Pig.” In the essay, Rabbi Israel described questions that he had been asked that on the surface appeared to be halachic, but they could not really be answered within the halachic (Jewish legal) framework because the basic assumption behind the question was so far outside of the halachic norm.
As an example, one Yom Kippur, Rabbi Israel received a phone call early in the morning from an acquaintance. The caller explained to Rabbi Israel that he had just finished a 20-mile run and wanted the rabbi to affirm that under the circumstances, since he risked dehydration and all its attendant risks, he should go ahead and drink water.
Halachically, there is no question that a serious risk to one’s health justifies drinking water on Yom Kippur. For example, I take medicine twice a day that would be very dangerous for me to skip, and to take it I have to have a sip of water. Under the circumstances, halachah absolutely requires me to take the medicine and the water necessary to do so.
The problem with the question as posed to Rabbi Israel is that there is no reason for any Jew to take a 20-mile run on the morning of Yom Kippur (barring, let’s say, being chased by Cossacks on horseback). While the risk to the caller’s life might well justify going ahead and drinking water, one should not intentionally place oneself in a situation where it becomes necessary to do so.
I thought of this story Friday afternoon when it was announced that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges. I’m not a lawyer and from what I have read about the specifics of the case, Wisconsin law makes it very difficult to convict a defendant who claims that they acted in self-defense. In the early ‘90s I served on a jury in DC Superior Court where we acquitted the defendant even though I believed that he probably had committed the crime of which he was accused. Our legal system requires the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and they simply hadn’t met that burden of proof.
So the Rittenhouse verdict may well have been legally correct under the circumstances and the fact that the jury deliberated for almost four days before reaching this verdict indicates to me that they took their responsibility seriously even if I am disappointed in the verdict they reached.
But Kyle Rittenhouse reminds me of the guy who decided to take a 20-mile run on Yom Kippur morning and then said he needed to drink water or his health would be at risk. An untrained 17 year old has no business walking around in a tense situation, in a city and state where he doesn’t live, carrying an AR-15.
Regardless of the legal merits of his self-defense claim, but for his decision to go to Kenosha and insert himself into a situation where he didn’t belong, two people would still be alive. But for the decision of a 19-year-old friend to buy the weapon for him, two people would still be alive. If, as many fear, this verdict will embolden hot heads to walk around with deadly firepower in tense situations, a lot more people are going to be killed and wounded. I hope and pray that this doesn’t happen.
Rabbi Charles Arian is rabbi of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg.