In Baltimore, MD, Budget Advocacy, MD Renters' Rights
Esther Jarvis-Pillai

This D’var Torah, or “word of Torah,” is a guest post by Esther Jarvis-Pillai, a Baltimore leader, about the themes of Shavuot, the murder of Jordan Neely, and the budget requests of Baltimore Renters United (BRU).

The upcoming festival of Shavuot evokes a heady mix of excitement, awe, and dread. On Shavuot we celebrate divine nurture by eating dairy foods, reading the tale of Ruth’s unbreakable devotion to Naomi, and studying Torah all night long (an ecstatic experience). Yet Shavuot also wears a more off-putting, frightening face. According to a famously distressing Talmudic story, God lifted Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses) from its roots and threatened to drop it on the Jewish people and crush us if we refused to accept the Torah. Dr. Tzvi Novick, a scholar of rabbinic law, writes that this story came from a pre-Talmudic commentary claiming that God held the mountain over the Jews as a comforting gesture, to shield us from the thunder and lightning that accompanied the giving of the Torah. Similar language is used to describe the parting of the Red Sea that both provided the Jews with an escape route and drowned Pharaoh’s pursuing army. The conception of this miracle as a revelation, as well as God’s dual roles as protector and punisher, encouraged the Sages to also see nurture and abuse in the revelation at Sinai. (It’s well worth reading Novick’s entire post, perhaps with a slice of cheesecake.)

We saw a glimpse into the coupling of power and impunity with the horrifying murder of Jordan Neely, a homeless Black man, on the New York City subway. Neely declared that he had no food or water, and that he had been denied basic human dignity for so long that he no longer really cared what happened to him. He shouted this testimony, and in response, a white man, an ex-Marine, put Neely in a chokehold for fifteen excruciating minutes, killing Neely. For those wondering, fifteen minutes is nine hundred seconds, nine hundred distinct moments in which Neely’s assaulter could have chosen not to become his killer. By not charging the murderer as such, the New York Police Department relayed the message loud and clear: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Especially against Black men. Especially against homeless people. Especially against those who dare to demand better from a society that offers them nothing when they comply and violence when they don’t.

The murder of Jordan Neely, in full view of a train car full of people who did nothing to prevent it, with multitudes on social media emboldened to cheer on his killer, is a revelation of barbaric power wielded without the fear of God, a revelation as public as the revelation at Sinai. Our Torah commands us to: set aside produce that falls to the ground while being harvested for those who have no fields of their own so that they can gain sustenance without debt or dependency, to guard the well-being of the orphan and widow, and to treat the foreigner with kindness. And in the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, our Torah teaches us that through these mitzvot, or commandments, redemption will come to the Jewish people. The “Torah of cruelty,” however, makes no such demands of us, and instead calls for unlimited human sacrifice to the idols of the market, private property, and the ability to consume and kill without the slightest impediment. Jordan Neely defied the right of these idols to rule him, and for this he was killed.

Members of Baltimore Renters United, including JUFJers, demanding that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City stop mass evictions

The Torah of cruelty could overwhelm us with its power if we did not have a heavenly Torah to protect us. This heavenly Torah calls us to compassion, with a force that makes clear that we could not exist without its protection. The terrifying, many-winged beauty of Shavuot is an ultimatum that humanity’s survival depends on building a world where all human beings are treated as they were created, in the image of God. I am grateful for advocates, organizations, and coalitions like Baltimore Renters United (BRU), who are helping build that world by demanding a city where Black and brown people can be honored through safe, stable, and affordable housing — and making the following budget requests for FY24: 

  • $1.6 million to uphold the City’s legal responsibility to tenants’ legal right to representation in cases that may result in eviction
  • $25 million for emergency rental assistance, a critical eviction prevention tool
  • $2 million for housing safety inspectors to ensure dignified and humane housing

Additionally, BRU is demanding that the City pass an effective inclusionary housing bill to expand access to affordable housing for those who have been denied it. 

These demands, as well as calls to reconsider the City’s ineffective and bloated policing budget, are necessary to building independent political power for Baltimore’s renters. We deserve housing that affirms and reflects our dignity as human beings. We deserve to be safe and free in our homes. We deserve to have our legal rights protected as forcefully as the property rights of the wealthy who extract value from us at work and our wages from us at home. We have every right to organize for our own self-determination and autonomy as working people and to make these demands in the name of a mighty, just, and compassionate God. 

My Torah, the Torah of life and justice, teaches that the longing for freedom and a compassionate future cannot be beaten out of human beings. We did not prevent the killing of Jordan Neely. But we can, to paraphrase Exodus 24:7, listen to his final call to us and to Heaven. We can bear witness to his testimony. We can prevent a similar fate befalling our friends and neighbors. We can reject the Torah of barbarism by securing our rights as renters through collective action, instead of policing shared space through the use of force that separates us from one another and our own souls. We can stand before power without fear, as ones shielded by a mountain instead of being menaced by it. 

Kol hakavod / well done to BRU, and chag Shavuot sameach / Happy Shavuot!

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