‘Making goodness attractive.’ This was how Fred Rogers summarized our task at the turn of the millennium in the film about his life’s work, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The Pittsburgh region has done this and more in the year since that horrifying attack on the communities that pray at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Attacks against Jews are, alas, not new. Esteem and affection from those of different religious commitments – philo-Semitism – this is new. Pittsburgh’s leading daily newspaper captured that spirit best when it chose to print the opening words to the Mourners Kaddish. The juxtaposition between hate and love was made vivid. It continues to be.
Yet we continue to wonder, ‘Are unrest and contempt baked into reality?’ ‘Is conflict inevitable?’
Ancient stories about the world’s creation depict the world coming into being as a result of strife. History is born from battles between divine forces and dark forces which are often depicted by sea monsters. Why does the Torah make special mention of God’s creating ‘sea monsters’ (taninim hagedolim) on the fifth day (Gen. 1:21)? A modern biblical scholar taught that this is a polemic against conflict-ridden creation stories (Cassuto). The foundational fabric of creation is tranquil. Even those forces responsible for strife were brought into being in an orderly manner by a serenity-favoring God.
But by the end of this week’s portion of Torah, willful wickedness has surpassed all goodness. ‘Only badness all (every) day’ is juxtaposed with divine assertions of goodness at the end of each created day (Gen. 6:5 and Gen. 1). “The opposite of dignity is despair” says Arthur Brooks, and this is alluded to in the arc of a Torah portion that begins with orderly calm and ends in moral chaos.
Our response? Bari Weiss urges us to embrace Judaism’s dignities. She reminds us that Jews are not sustained by “being anti-anti-Semites.” Rather we are sustained by knowing who we are and why we are. Judaism’s core dignities help us to nourish growth, deepen joy, solace grief, stir hope, activate accountability, awaken empathy, and make goodness glow.
When we share these dignities and draw strength from fellow travelers from kindred religions, we are reassured that there is nothing normative about discord. May Greater Pittsburgh’s example inspire us all to reveal ways by which our shared experiences align which God’s original view, so we too may affirm, “Behold it is good.”