A Day after Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

Our tradition offers words of consolation, but we may not hear them until we can explain our pain. The wounds are raw and the deaths are fresh. At this time of aninut, the period before burial, we feel nothing and yet, we feel everything.

  • Jews have enjoyed three hundred years fear from fear of communal violence in a blessed land until yesterday.
  • We are proud to be Jews, but we thought we were seen as Americans first in this century.
  • And like all people of good will in the United States, we believed that reason and optimism would overcome hatred and paranoid delusion.

We were not wrong.

The murderer may be a random actor, but I cannot see this senseless massacre as an isolated moment. The Sikhs were gunned down in Wisconsin. The black church members were slaughtered in the basement of their church in Charleston, SC. All of them and all of us were easy targets for hatred. We were people who believed in the possibilities of humanity and in the hope that prayer, good deeds, and acts of compassion could heal a divided world. We met the world with open arms instead of loaded guns.

The murderers were wrong though. The Sikh Gurdwara re-opened as did the AME Church. People came from all walks of life to sit with the survivors and to stand with the mourners. You must understand – a gun can kill a human, but it cannot extinguish humanity.

Historians have proven in European history that when Jews were persecuted, the country was already in or headed into great turmoil. The community of Jews was like a canary in a coal mine, a harbinger of great suffering to come. However, the persecutions in Europe were all, either state sponsored or church sponsored. History has no example of the great patchwork of ethnic and religious communities that make up the United States. Are the Sikhs, the African-American Christians, or the Jews the canary or all of us canaries? No, they are not and no, we are not. Our murdered brothers and sisters are victims and, as our tradition states, they are martyrs for their beliefs. We mourn with their families, friends, and congregation.

The massacre in Pittsburgh was directed at all American Jews. I hear that message, acknowledge it and hold my loved ones ever closer. The pain is personal, tapping into a history of martyrdom that I know far too well. I have known Jew-hatred, intimately. I have witnessed the hatred of the other through my eyes and my ears. Some people fear the world, and no law or principle will sway them from their hatred.

Please remember the great deeds our country has accomplished though. This nation has allowed the Jews to flourish as no other country in history has. The United States has offered the same opportunity to many, many other communities, which has made us as Jews doubly proud. We must pledge not be silenced by the hatred and the violence until it has been diminished and dismissed from the public ways and public discourses of this great nation.

In the coming days we will comfort our people and we will pray. Even more, we encourage our resolve to continue the fight for dignity and respect for all peoples who live within these borders. We must not respond to this tragedy with silence.

To our friends and well-wishers, please join with us as we pray, sit with us as we mourn, and when these first days have passed, join with us and let us together return grace to this nation. Nothing could give us greater solace.

Amen

‘”Amen.” It is not a natural utterance. You must learn to say it.” (Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier, p. 468.) Many believe that amen is a statement of confirmation, as in “this is my life – amen.” Others believe that amen is a statement of affirmation, as in “this is the greatness in my life – amen.” Those who study the word a bit more closely understand that amen contains a strong element of fatalism, as in “Is this my life – amen?”

To recite amen with conviction, the proclaimer must take a long journey. The present has not context without the immediate and often the far past. The journey begins by revisiting the past, not with nostalgia but with clarity. The journey continues with the present and where one stands now and just as importantly, why. Then there is the future and one’s hopes, expectations and fears. Bring all of these explorations together and the word amen falls easily from the lips.

Sound so simple on paper, simply do this or that. Yet amen is the hardest word a person will utter. Amen.

A Member of the Tribe

The eulogies are fast and furious as the news of Joan River’s death continues to spread. All of the major internet sites have clips of her appearances and routines from the past fifty years along with remembrances and biographical analyses. There is a lot to say and hope that in the coming days the writers and the commentators will not be able to agree on one single narrative to eulogize her life.

             I have a small footnote. Joan Rivers was a real Jew – not a pious Jew, a synagogue Jew, nor an ethnic or cultural Jew. She was a member of the tribe, an offensive term when non-Jews use it but a high compliment when it is bestowed by one Jew upon another. To an outsider, tribalism is a derogatory term reeking of exclusivity and condescension. To proclaim someone a member of the tribe within the Jewish world is to mark that person as being remarkable and proud about being a Jew.

            Joan lived a philosophy that many rabbis preach but few rise to embrace. Joan embraced everything Jewish from food and family to politics and Israel. The term “Judaism” is a definition imposed upon Jews by outsiders. There is no “ism”, no specific religion for the Jews. We are a people and the sphere in which we dwell is called “The Jewish World”. Joan embraced this entire sphere, sometimes with high regard and sometimes with low profanities.

            She called her career as a comedian a calling. She skewered any and all who dared to flaunt themselves for fame, fortune or power. She skewered herself. She spoke truths with a capital “T” and I believe that these public expositions of truth dressed as jokes were the source of her influence and media power through these past fifty years. This trait alone made her a leading member of the Tribe.