When Yishai Schlissel stabbed six people at the gay pride march in Jerusalem, he committed far more than the crime of assault. His crime was not that of an individual against other individuals. He acted as an expression of his own identity as a Haredi, against a group of people who were expressing pride in their gay identity. This importance of this ‘identity overlay’ cannot be underestimated. It is what widens the context of a single act into something that can polarize on a large scale.
Orthodox Jewish leaders around the world were very quick to condemn him in the strongest terms, and to state in the name of the religion that there was no justification for his crime. At the same time, many people responded by calling the perpetrator a lunatic, a psycho, or mentally ill. But this dismissive response does not lessen his crime, nor reduce the wider context in which his crime was viewed. No matter how misguided he was, he committed the crime in the name of our religion. If he is a lunatic, he is our lunatic. That means we need to stand up and declare for the entire world that his actions do not reflect the values of our religion.
We’ve seen many cases recently of Muslims who committed terrorist acts in the West, after which they are branded as ‘lone wolf’ or ‘isolated’ incidents. We demand that Muslim leaders condemn the crimes and disavow themselves and their religion from those acts, but instead they dismiss them as actions of individuals. The ‘lone wolf’ attacks keep coming, and few have the nous to join the dots and see a pattern.
We cannot do this. While we cannot control the actions of other Jews, we can control our response to those actions. Our response here was the correct one. We call out those crimes as a Chillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name.
Last week’s Torah reading featured the Shema, which contains the commandment: “And you should love your God …” (Devarim 6:5). The Talmud (Yoma 66a) explains that we are obliged to act in a way that causes others to love God. Our actions do not exist in a vacuum. As Jews, everything we do is linked to our identity, and therefore what we do reflects on us as Jews, and by extension on how Judaism and God are perceived by others. This is the obligation to make a Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name), and to avoid making a Chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s name).
Unfortunately, there is an asymmetry between these two things. We have a nasty habit of celebrating the individual, but blaming the collective. When a Jew does something good, people’s instinct is not to associate their action with their Jewish identity (which would cause a Kiddush Hashem). But when a Jew does anything bad, the haters and come out from all sides (including and especially other Jews). The sin is no longer an individual one. It’s a collective one committed by the Haredim, or the Orthodox, or Chabad, or whichever group people choose to associate the criminal with, or happen to hate and want another excuse to blame. It’s easy to make a Chillul Hashem; much harder to make a Kiddush Hashem.
In this case, Orthodox Rabbis who might ordinarily have opposed a gay pride march (and even called it a Chillul Hashem) turned the situation around and did the right thing, calling the attacker for the Chillul Hashem, and in doing so performed a Kiddush Hashem.