In 2019, Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his new book Revolutionary Love, proposed “gradually to disband police forces and replace them with neighborhood security committees trained in de-escalation and empathic intervention. These committees will be backed up in emergency situations by local community forces (neighbors trained to meet violence effectively).” Lerner was ahead of his time; today that proposal is all over the internet, and it has been commented on favorably by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a review of Revolutionary Love. So here is a radical idea endorsed by two rabbis. They are spiritual Jews, and I am a secular Jew. Still, we are close enough so that what they say commands my attention. Do I want to be policed not by the police, but by my neighbors?
The idea is excitingly new, but it has a history. I know something about that history because, long ago when I was a graduate student, I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on the English Revolution of the 1640s, the Puritan Revolution, which I called “the revolution of the saints.” The “saints” were very strong on the work of neighborhood committees. In Calvin’s Geneva, law and order were maintained through “mutual surveillance.” Church members (ideally all Genevans were church members) “watched, investigated, and chastised” each other.
The Puritans carried this discipline to England, where it was enforced in their congregations. The Holy Commonwealth did not last long enough to extend “watchfulness” and “brotherly admonition” to the country at large. We can get some idea of what these two meant in congregational life from the Reverend Richard Baxter’s report that in his Kidderminster parish the enforcement of the new moral order was made possible “by the zeal and diligence of the godly people of the place who thirsted after the salvation of their neighbors …” That thirst might well be called revolutionary love. Another example, from the minutes of a 17th-century consistory (a committee of neighbors): “The church was satisfied with Mrs. Carlton as to the weight of her butter.”
Secular versions of this sort of thing appear in the French Revolution. The Jacobin clubs were centers of public virtue, where members criticized each other and watched over people whose opinions were suspect. The “struggle sessions” held in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution provide yet another example. The Chinese name for the sessions derives from the verb “to criticize or judge.” Here class enemies were denounced by their fellow citizens. That’s not at all what Lerner and Waskow have in mind, but it does suggest the dangers of involving everyone’s neighbors in the business of brotherly, or comradely, admonition.
Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan England, the Jacobin clubs, the Chinese Cultural Revolution—it’s not a Jewish legacy. But perhaps the idea of neighborly surveillance derives from the Levitical commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we might thirst if not for the salvation of our neighbors, at least for their moral rectitude. Lerner writes about the transformative power of love, and Waskow, noting the skepticism of left intellectuals like me, writes that “religion [is] the one aspect of American society that still holds some love for Love.” But is this a Jewish love? Some of our sages were themselves skeptical.
Nachmanides writes that the Levitical commandment cannot be taken literally since God does not command what isn’t humanly possible: Self-love will always be paramount. So we don’t actually have to love our neighbors, he says; we just have to wish them well. “The Torah here enjoins that we should wish upon our neighbors the same benefits that we wish upon ourselves.” Come the next hurricane, I wish that no tree falls on my house, and I also wish that no tree falls on any of their houses. And since I hope to avoid being watched, investigated, and chastised by my neighbors, I wish them the same avoidance.
Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi and a major biblical commentator in his own right, says that the meaning of the Levitical commandment is obvious: We should love our neighbor if he is virtuous and if not, not. That’s a realistic view, and there goes love’s guarantee. What if my neighbors don’t recognize my virtues?
All things considered, I would rather be watched by men and women in uniform—so that I can watch my watchers and, if I feel overwatched, ask for their badge numbers. But I understand that the current enthusiasm for community policing is a response to the experience of police brutality in communities, especially black communities, across the country. And that experience requires a response, but a different response, from my neighbors and myself: It requires a political campaign to transform American law enforcement.
- We must demilitarize the police and take away weapons designed for a battlefield, not for an American city.
- We must end the virtual immunity from prosecution of violent police men and women. (Actually I don’t know of any incidents involving violent police women, so we probably need more of them and fewer men.)
- We must decriminalize many of the petty offenses, especially drug offenses, which the police enforce with too much force.
- And, yes, we must train the police as Rabbi Lerner would train my neighbors “in de-escalation and empathic intervention.”
It won’t be easy to do all this; what will be necessary is an activity appropriate to the citizens of a democracy: politicking, not policing. And if we succeed, I will never have to worry that the people who live around me have their eyes on me, vigilantly watching.
Michael Walzer is professor (emeritus) at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is the author of Just and Unjust Wars and The Paradox of Liberation, among other books, and the former co-editor of Dissent magazine.