Justice, Religion

Jew Attacked in Prayer in Brooklyn; NYPD Kills Assailant: First Reactions

The New York Daily News is reporting that at around 1:45am today, a man named Calvin Peters entered a synagogue at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and, yelling, “I want to kill the Jew”, stabbed Israeli student Levi Rosenviat, while the latter was praying.  NYPD officers surrounded him, got him to put down the knife, and when he then picked it up again, an officer shot him in the stomach, which proved fatal. This stand-off and killing were recorded on video.
I’m just  reading this story; it’s too fresh to process and there’s a lot we don’t know.  Initial reactions and questions:

  • This is appalling and deeply, deeply frightening.  Especially on the heels of the gruesome, murderous terrorist attack on the worshipers in Har Nof, Jerusalem, a couple of weeks ago, and anti-Semitic vandalism defacing of a number of synagogues in Europe and the United States over the past few months, it is truly scary.  Prayer is an intimate and vulnerable act and it is especially violating to be victimized in a sneak attack at such a moment.  Places of worship classically were sanctuaries even for fugitive criminals, places to be free of violence.  It is with good reason that for many of us Jews, being attacked in the act of prayer arouses many of our most anxious feelings of trauma accumulated over centuries, and even in the lifetimes of our grandparents. And when we think about the deepest source of horror, shame, and outrage for so many Jews and Israelis for Israel’s part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many of us think of Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Palestinians in Hebron, on Purim, 1994. This is not just because of the grotesque, mass murder in and of itself, but even more so because the victims were in the act of prayer.  I expect that many congregations in the U.S. will reconsider their security policies.  I hope that they will have the emotional bravery to take a deep breath and make studied, thoughtful decisions, and not rash ones that may seem to calm anxiety in the moment, but only exacerbate it in the long term.

*I’ve watched the video only once and it’s hard to get a full picture.  But I have some questions about whether the police officer needed to shoot the assailant in the stomach, such that the wound would be fatal.  I am not necessarily objecting to the use of force, here:  Mr. Peters had already stabbed someone, yelled that he wanted to murder, and now, lunged for a knife and waved it at the officers.  His picking up the knife again is a belligerent attack; Jewish legal terminology might reasonably, then, call Mr. Peters a רודף here, a “pursuer”, ready to kill, and the mishna teaches that one may/should kill a person in hot pursuit to kill or rape another person.  However, the Talmud also warns us that  if you can stop the pursuer with non-lethal force, such as taking out a limb, but you kill the pursuer anyway, you are considered a murderer and liable for capital punishment, as you are for any other murder (TB Sanhedrin 74a):  רבי יונתן בן שאול אומר: רודף שהיה רודף אחר חבירו להורגו ויכול להצילו באחד מאבריו ולא הציל נהרג עליו.  This is the authoritative rule codified in the Shulchan Arukh (HM 425:1).  My first reaction to the video is that we should question whether the officer could have gotten Peters to drop the knife without shooting him fatally.  My sense is probably, yes, especially with several officers present, all armed, all trained in use of non-lethal force. As citizens and as Jews, we should be asking pointed questions of the NYPD about their use of lethal force.
*All that would be true even if Peters was a רודף, a pursuer, at the moment the officer shot him.  I’m not even sure that category is appropriate here. Picking up the knife again was definitely belligerent and dangerous, but he didn’t seem to be lunging after anyone at the moment; all the more so that we should be exceedingly concerned about the officer’s use of lethal force.
These are questions I would like us to ask as we follow this scary, awful story.

10 thoughts on “Jew Attacked in Prayer in Brooklyn; NYPD Kills Assailant: First Reactions

  1. In a case of rodef, how should cops, or anyone capable of “להצילו” parse issues of uncertainty? What I mean is, presumably there are cases in which you might be able to stop the rodef by injuring him, but you’re not sure. I don’t know if this tragedy is one of those cases. But how sure must one be before using lethal force?
    Moreover, the gemara you quote states נהרג עליו which means this is enforced in courts. But there’s a subjective component to uncertainty–so how is a court to decide if the “matzil” was certain enough that he needed to use lethal force?

  2. The frightening thing about this incident is that it seems that while the Lubavitchers are calm and one is even trying to calm down the cop, the cops seem to be heightening the tension by screaming and cursing. There is a moment there where the knife is down and the cop hesitates several seconds before moving between the assailant and the knife. I wonder what would have happened if a police officer with mediation training would have been there.

  3. Those are good questions, Adam, and I would expect police force protocol and municipal law/regulations to invest serious resources into a careful, research-driven set of guidelines for how to navigate definitionally difficult situations.
    Is for the court enforcement, the Rambam actually rules that such a person is NOT executed in court, but only חייב מיתה בידי שמיים (liable for Divinely meted death). That strikes me as not the plain meaning of the gemara, and if I’m not mistaken, some commentaries and posekim disagree with the Rambam on that. But even if it is adjudicated in court, this case strikes me as not fundamentally different from any other capital case (or, even more so, Shabbat violation), in terms of the subjectivity that is difficult for courts to sort through. Meaning, I agree that it’s a problem, but it’s not a unique problem to here; any actual court system will figure out how to navigate those questions.

  4. Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, “Purity of Arms” and Purity of Ethical Judgment
    “A person studying the halakhah, the morals, and the ethics of warfare while seated behind a desk in an air-conditioned room cannot be equated with a soldier who, putting his life on the line and standing face-to-face with an enemy, is called upon to decide in a split second whether to open fire.”
    Probably why the Rambam says it is “beyedei shamayim.” Unlike the Rodef (who is basically nidon al shem sofo) at the moment, after the fact, we are dealing with regular dine nefashot which require eidim and warning. So in cases like this, the beit din could not execute anyway.

  5. First of all, police don’t shoot to wound. If they need to use lethal force they are going to aim for center of the body to stop the attack. Shooting limbs is impractical. It may not stop the attacker and handguns simply aren’t that accurate.
    The perpetrator in this case had stabbed someone and was threatening to kill more people. He asked the cop if the cop was going to shoot him showing that he understood what he was doing.
    The cop was very calm and gave clear and forceful instructions.
    There are no less-lethal tactics available to patrol cops that don’t require being within arms length of the subject. That is entirely too close to be to a man with a knife. The bystanders there were much too close to the perpetrator they could have easily been stabbed as well.

  6. “I have some questions about whether the police officer needed to shoot the assailant in the stomach, such that the wound would be fatal.”
    It’s frustrating to keep seeing people questioning whether a police officer had to shoot someone and kill them. The truth is, with a handgun, there is no such thing as shooting to wound. You are essentially damning a police officer, who put their life on the line to save a fellow human being, for not being your Hollywood fantasy of what a police officer should be.

  7. Aryeh Bernstein, I think the question for most people lately has come down to demographics and privilege. Conversations about these things are important but are different than a conversation about practical ethics and halakha. In the spirit of rabbinic literature, let’s propose a different scenario to see how it compares:
    If a woman being raped (Hv”Sh) sees a brick and hits the guy on the head, killing him, would you question her innocence by wondering in public if she could have staved him off with a non-lethal hit?
    Now what if the woman were white and wealthy and the rapist non-white and mentally ill?

  8. Wolfson, you miss my point entirely. Of course police have nonlethal options. I never argued that they don’t. Simply put, their sidearms are never a nonlethal option. Only in movies is there such thing as using a handgun with any intention other than ending a life.

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