After a gut-wrenching week of tears and grief, Shabbat finally approaches. It is difficult to imagine the sorrow and agony flooding the hearts of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and particularly those who attend the Tree of Life Congregation. Jews across the globe continue to process last week’s trauma and the grotesque images we have unfortunately glimpsed too often. After a week of battling back tears, I send my heartfelt love and consolation to our Jewish family in Pittsburgh. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu extend you solace and recovery.
Some thoughts and perspectives on a tragedy that continues to reverberate within the collective Jewish soul.
1. One Struggle
As an Israeli, this week’s scenes are particularly evocative. In our homeland, we are too familiar with the heavy price we are sometimes expected to pay for our values, faith and for our devotion to resettling our people. This week reminds us that our struggle in Israel is identical to yours. Currently, Jews are primarily concentrated in two large mega-communities in Israel and the USA, and oftentimes important issues create legitimate differences of opinion between these two communities. Sadly, an event such as this tragedy reminds us of our common destiny and of our inextricable linkage. So frequently, we, in Israel, are the beneficiaries of your support, well-wishes and visits during our moments of crisis. This week was our opportunity to reciprocate and attempt—as best we could—to live your pain, suffer your trauma and shower our love and concern upon you. This was our week to “stand with you,” and our country grieved with you as we witnessed the horror and ultimately the sad funerals.
2. This Is Different
Living in modern democratic societies is a long-awaited-for privilege, and the bitter scenes this week were tinged with a sense of historical accomplishment. We know Robert Bowers all too well and have met this angry maniacal killer over the past two millennia. This day felt all-too-similar to the innumerable pogroms and attacks we have suffered in the past. Yet it felt so different. In the past, policemen and soldiers would often look on and scorn Jewish victims while allowing free hand to our tormentors. Often, soldiers themselves directed the assault upon our defenseless people. Witnessing the dedication and selflessness of the Pittsburgh Police Department punctuated how different our era is and how thankful we must be. Furthermore, we were assaulted by a lone madman spewing hate and bullets at elderly Jews. This too felt very different from the crazed mobs we have faced in the past. Moreover, though it is difficult to imagine the horror of those 80 minutes, the shooter was ultimately subdued and the attack contained. This feels very different from the sustained pogroms that often lasted interminable days, if not weeks, and only subsided when the blood lust of our enemies was satiated. Finally, in the past, Jews were left alone to suffer in silence—mocked and scorned by our neighbors. The victims of this tragedy, and our people in general, have been overwhelmingly embraced by those who sense our pain and despise the senselessness of hate and murder. It is important to discriminate between the classic scenes of past Jewish suffering and the scenes we witnessed in Pittsburgh. We have been gifted with vigorous democracies that have welcomed Jews and offered them influence and affluence. Though the social bonds in many of these democracies has begun to fray and anti-Semitic activity is on the rise, we best not under appreciate this opportunity and we dare not lose perspective on the stability we have been afforded. Our suffering cannot blur the opportunities we have been offered and, if our security is now imperiled, we must battle to protect and preserve our rights rather than fold into panic.
3. The Discourse of Anti-Semitism
It is unfair to assume that any anti-Israel bias is rooted in anti Semitism. Indeed, geopolitical opposition often camouflages virulent anti-Semitism, but some of the opposition to Israel is based on real differences of opinion unrelated to the hatred of Jews. However, this shooting was raw anti-Semitism at its worst, and should remind us of how deeply ingrained anti-Semitism is. God chose us to represent Him in this world and to advance the agendas of monotheism and morality. We are tasked with inspiring an entire world to higher ground and serving as the spiritual vanguard of humanity. This is the primary root of anti Semitism; no one likes a whistleblower and we serve as the conscience of the world. Though our enemies may not articulate this motive and probably aren’t even aware of this basis for their hatred, we believe in larger metaphysical realities of which humans aren’t always conscious. For centuries we have stood tall in the face of hostility, and amazingly we have triumphed over history by delivering monotheism to mankind. Yet, we have paid, and evidently continue to pay, a heavy price.
In the generations after the Holocaust, the discourse of anti-Semitism has been altered. Hatred of Jews has been clustered with general hatred of the “other”—the other race, religion or sexual orientation. Indeed, the crusade for justice and equality for underprivileged minorities and the battle against hatred and discrimination are sacred callings and it is not incidental that Jews have been at the forefront of these crusades. Caring for the vulnerable and the weak echoes the lifestyles of our Avot, about which we currently read in the book of Bereishit. Yet collapsing anti-Semitism and merging it with general “hatred” ignores the unique nature of anti-Semitism.
In Parshat Chayei Sarah we first encounter Lavan, who on Pesach is annually introduced as the first anti-Semite: “Arami oved avi” (an Armenian wanted to eliminate our grandfather). His hatred of Jews was so venomous that it was self-destructive. His designs to murder Yaakov would have potentially also murdered his own children and grandchildren. Sadly, anti-Semitism is psychopathic and so vicious that it clouds judgment and devours the assailant. It is naïve and historically unwise to assume that we can completely eliminate anti-Semitism by simply rooting out evil and creating societies of justice and social equality. As long as Hashem’s presence in this world is still incomplete we will still stand in for Him and we will be loathed by some. One day, when His presence is unmistakable, we will be celebrated by all for standing for Him. Until that day it is difficult to imagine a complete eradication of anti-Semitism. This perspective should not render us fatalistic; we must endeavor to limit this human plague of anti-Semitism as best we can, along with battling hatred of the other in any variety. However, we can’t allow anti-Semitism to be neatly packaged within overall phenomena of hate-related crimes. This is simplistic and detached from the broader prophetic and historical reality in which we all participate.
4. Common Destiny
Finally, this week reminded us of our unbreakable bond with every Jew regardless of their denomination. Any Jew who is murdered for his Jewishness is “makedash shem shamayim,” independent of their broader religious identification or practice. As the Orthodox community—in particular in larger cities—has thrived, we have, more and more, severed ourselves from interaction with the non-Orthodox. Though this policy may or may not be correct, it sometimes creates myopia. When Jews are murdered for their Judaism anywhere, let alone while attending a synagogue on Shabbat, the name of Hashem has been consecrated and the victims have passed “al kiddush Hashem.” It is particularly iconic that this massacre occurred on Shabbat while celebrating a brit. These are two mitzvot that have outlasted history and have been preserved even by those who have relinquished other mitzvot. Though many Jews no longer attend to general mitzvot, almost every Jew has a sense of the import of Shabbat and the iconic meaning of a brit milah. These two mitzvot are defined as brit—suggesting an eternal and unbreakable covenant between Hashem and His people. Witnessing Jews devoted to these two brit-mitzvot dying al kiddush Hashem reminds us that, despite our important differences, we share a common God, a common legacy and a shared destiny.
May our people know no more sorrow.
By Moshe Taragin
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.