Lesson in Faith and Action from Tragedy of Poway

As a child whose father was a congregational rabbi, I heard the tragic story of Rabbi Morris Adler who was shot and murdered on his own bimah, in his synagogue in Detroit on a Shabbat morning in 1966.

While this was quite disturbing, I was able to file it away as it seemed far in the past, something that would not happen again.

Then, in recent years, as the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings has increased alarmingly, some of that sense of security has begun to shatter.

The tragic and devastating attack on the Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh six months ago changed our experience even more.  

Chabad of Poway (unattributed photo from their website)

And then learning last Shabbat about the attack on a Chabad outside San Diego in Poway, California reminded me that we live in a different time.  

We live in a time of increased hatred that encourages alienated people – mostly young white men – to act out in horrifically violent ways.

So, this Shabbat as we gather and read Parashat Aharei Mot, the Torah reading that comes after the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons, let us try to understand this moment after another attack and murder in a synagogue.

There are lessons:

First, we can do much more to end the scourge of gun violence.  For example, over 90% of Americans support universal background checks, but the NRA and some politicians have blocked that.  We must all do more to enact that and other common-sense legislation.

Sign a petition or donate here: https://everytown.org/ or join our own MA Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

Second, we must recognize and fight the ideology of white supremacy that is the number one terrorist threat in the United States today.  

Professor Lipstadt (photo from Emory University website)

As Professor Deborah Lipstadt wrote “do not think of the murderers in Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, San Diego (#Poway) as lone wolves.  They are inspired by the same white supremacist anti semitic websites. The are no fine people here and there were none in Charlottesville.”

White nationalism is an ideology that sees Jews as controlling the levers of government, media and finance to undermine white persons.  This dangerous dogma is drawn from the same thinking that led to the Shoah, the Holocaust which we also remembered this week. Most frighteningly, this hate is no longer confined to the fringes – it has moved from message boards to rallies to echoing in the halls of power. It often contain racist and anti Muslim components as well.

Third, we must realize that we here at Temple Emunah will have to do more to secure our sacred space and each other. That will require more volunteers who are trained and willing to serve as greeters and on our security committee.  Please let me know if you were willing to help. It will also necessitate additional financial resources.

Photo by Temple Emunah congregant Adam Samansky

Fourth, on the positive side, we are reminded that we also live in a world that is much more supportive than ever before.  Over the last week, various communities reached out to us through emails, phone calls and texts. A group of Muslim women from the Lexington community immediately came over on Sunday morning with signs, flowers and a card.

That speaks to the bridges that we have built with different communities and just as we reached out to the Muslim community after the horrific events in Christchurch and to the Catholic community after Sri Lanka, they have reciprocated.  While we hope that this relationship blossoms not responding to tragedies, but also sharing experiences, it is nonetheless so helpful to have it. And it is a strong reminder of the importance of building bridges with other faith communities, especially the Muslim community in our area.

Finally, as we share of message of condolence to the family of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, z”l, and wishes for a refuah shleymah – healing to those who were wounded, I want to share a piece of learning and theology.

It has been powerful to witness the leadership of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein in Poway.  Even during this time of mourning, he published an op-ed in the NY Times entitled: A Terrorist Tried to Kill Me Because I Am a Jew. I Will Never Back Down.  I appreciate his strength and how he shared his experience with clarity and conviction.

He also wrote: “I am a religious man. I believe everything happens for a reason. I do not know why God spared my life. I do not know why I had to witness scenes of a pogrom in San Diego County like the ones my grandparents experienced in Poland.”

I have difficulty with this statement.  Did God really spare his life? Why would God not spare his friend Lori’s life?  Thinking about the six million this week, I again ponder why did God not spare their lives?

And I actually believe that sadly we do know why this tragedy in Poway occurred.  This shooting happened not because of God, but because of hate that is easily consumed on the internet and the far-too-easy accessibility of guns like the AR-15 assault rifle the shooter used to kill Lori Gilbert-Kaye.

This notion that the shooting was under some kind of Divine direction does not accord with a worldview that resonates with me.  For many on this planet, the idea that God is in control of human affairs can be comforting; in a world that is filled with violence, pain and suffering, to imagine that there is a loving, parental-type figure in charge makes us feel a little less afraid.

This idea is rooted in the Torah that understands God as controlling human affairs meting out rewards and punishments.  Our rabbis continued this theology, although they made some room for free will and randomness.

In the Middle Ages, scholars started to limit the idea of Divine Providence by breaking into two categories: Hashgahah klalit General Providence which Maimonides explained as God caring for the entire world, not to a specific individual and Hashgahah Pratit Special Providence where God is looking after the individual.  

General Providence is always in force, while only some, like the truly righteous, could receive Special Providence personal, individualized Divine care.

In Modern times, many Jews moved away from these beliefs and after the Holocaust, that has only intensified.  God did not seem to be caring for individuals as we find too many examples of the righteous who suffer.

I tend to agree.  

GOD did not save Rabbi Goldstein, nor did God take the life of his friend last Shabbat.  

So, what can a modern person believe?

What is God’s will?  

And can we still find a religious voice and purpose if we do not believe that God is in control?

As a religious or spiritual person today who tries to be intellectually honest, I have to admit that I do not know.   There is deep humility that leads me to say: I am not sure.

So, what DO I know?  

I begin by looking around me and taking in the world.  

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We have been given this extraordinary gift of life in this wondrous world.  When we stop and appreciate it, it is beyond amazing.

To me, there is a Creator of this world Who lies beyond and within everything I see the fingerprints of the Divine like radiant sparks of light, sprinkled around us.

I see Judaism as teaching us to seek out those sparks of light, bringing more love and hope, healing and justice into the world.  

To me, that is God’s will.  

Sadly, pain, loss and hatred will continue however, our tradition implores us to respond to these in ways that are transformative.  We are invited to be God’s hands in this world.

God’s will is found in random acts of kindness.

God’s will is found in how we approach a complicated moment.

God’s will is found in each interaction.  Will we be open to finding the good and choosing life?

Rabbi Goldstein ended his op-ed by reminding us of a teaching from his rabbi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who, building on Lurianic Kabbalah of the 16th century, taught that “helping any human being tap into their divine spark is a step toward fixing this broken world and bringing closer the redemption of humanity.”

That, to me, is God’s will tap into the divine light that flows throughout the universe, healing ourselves and the world.

Shootings are not God’s will; but our responses to them certainly can be.

Let us utilize these difficult moments to be agents of change in the world and may that be God’s will.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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