Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

The Sign Above the Synagogue Door




When I visited Copenhagen’s main synagogue last summer, I noticed the sign above the entrance (see photo), which states, “Blessed be the one who comes in God’s name.”  I could not help but reflect this week on the irony of that invitation, in light of the desecration committed by perpetrators of terror who claimed to speak in God’s name, and who violated that sacred space without invitation.

We get hung up on the semantics as to whether those who pervert God’s name should be seen as representing their faith.  Like just about everything else in our polarized political landscape, this debate has been used to demonize and paint entire faith groups with very broad brushes.

Judaism teaches that we are all representatives of our faith group – which is why we even have a name for those who give us a bad name by perverting the divine name, or more accurately, we have a name for their despicable deeds: we call such actions a “Hillul Ha-shem,” a “Desecration of the Name.”  It comes from a verse in Leviticus, “And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the Lord who hallows you.”  Examples of such “hilluls” in Jewish sources include stealing, desecrating the Shabbat and gossip.

The Hebrew root for “hillul” implies more than a moral desecration; the imagery is quite concrete and physical.  It connotes a piercing or hollowing out.   Taking this imagery to its logical conclusion, these destructive actions create a cavity, an abscess that infects everything else around it.  The “Hillul Hashem,” rather than being a sacred act, is in fact a hollow caricature of the sacred.  The perpetrator dresses the part of piety, but it turns out to be a grotesque disguise.  In other words, it’s a cartoon, this caricature, one that renders profane the sacred surroundings and drives a spike of nihilism into the heart of divinity.  They drive a hole in the midst of the holy and the hallowed becomes the hollowed.

These purveyors of death, not the journalists and satirists, create the most objectionable cartoons of God.  The unfathomable, unknowable God is rendered two-dimensional by their outrageous breach, and through their nihilism, God’s name becomes the greatest victim.

So those who perpetrate terror in the name of God are actually desecrating that name and defaming their faith.  They are the godless ones.  But they remain, to the outside world, representatives of that faith simply by the fact of their identifying with it.  Bernie Madoff identified as a Jew.  His views were as far from mainstream Jewish values as you can get – his life was Exhibit A in the museum of “Hillul Ha-shem.”  Exhibit B might well be Rabbi Barry Freundel, who on Thursday pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism from secretly videotaping nude victims at his congregation’s ritual bath.

It is up to Jews everywhere to demonstrate that we, not Freundel, Madoff or Baruch Goldstein, are the representatives of the true Judaism; we need to overwhelm their evil with our good.  Muslims have no less a burden right now. I work closely with several Muslims on our local Interfaith Council and have great deal of sympathy for their ongoing plight.  Next month some will be here for our Interfaith Seder.  Plan to join us on March 26.  I do not regard the terrorists as the true face of Islam, but much of the world does.  Who really is the face of Islam is now an open question, just as it is an open question whether Meir Kahane’s disciples are the true face of Judaism.   We should all be encouraged by reports like the plan by over a thousand Norwegian Muslims to create a ring of security around an Oslo synagogue tomorrow.  That’s the kind of human shield we need to be seeing.

This I believe: Those who do God’s work here on earth, those who care for others and treasure each precious human life, whether they be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or anything else, they are the true face of God.  They are the ones who are filling the breach in the divine Name.

And they are the ones being welcomed by the sign over the door at the Copenhagen synagogue: “Blessed be the one who enters in God’s name.”

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307