Let’s Take the Synagogue Pledge of Sensitivity and Judging Favorably

We are still reeling from the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue this past Shabbat, which was the deadliest act of anti-semitism on US soil and it also took place in a shul.  We have witnessed varied reactions to the tragedy.  Some are in utter shock and disbelief.  Some are focused on the political aspect of the tragedy, that it’s President Trump’s fault or that we should change the gun control laws.  Some are asking what if there was an armed guard, what if they had better active shooter protocols.  Some are just sad and some just have nothing to say.  A colleague of mine, Rabbi Ari Sytner, noted that the various reactions throughout our community match the Kubler-Ross five different stages of grief.  Those in shock are expressing denial, many of those who are focusing on the political angle are expressing anger, those who are asking the “what if” questions are engaging in bargaining, those who are just sad are experiencing depression and those who have nothing to say are experiencing acceptance.  All of these feelings are normal and all of these feelings are valid.

Personally, I try as best as I can to confront these horrific tragedies through the “fate” and “destiny” approach of Rav Soloveitchik.  On the one hand, we are men and women of fate.  The fate of the Jewish nation has long been to suffer far more than to be expected.  We thought that anti-semitism was a thing of the past, at least in America.  But to be Jewish is our fate and we suffer for it. Even though this is the worst anti-semitic attack on U.S. soil, it should not come as a complete surprise. The Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017 compared to the previous year, including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses.  Halacha Esav sonei et Yaakov.  Our Sages tell us that the halacha is that Esav will hate Jacob. Anti-semitism will always exist. That is our fate.

But we are also men and women of destiny.  Whereas the Man of Fate asks why, the Man of Destiny asks what do I do now.  We respond.  And that response can take the shape of many different forms.  First, we cry for the eleven Kedoshim.  We cry for Joyce Feinberg, Jerry Rabinowitz, David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Irv Younger, Dan Stein, Rose Mallinger, Richard Gottfried, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon and Mel Wax.  We cry for their families.  We cry for the wounded.  We cry for the Tree of Life Synagogue.  We cry for Pittsburgh.  And by crying, we express solidarity with them.  We express that we are all one.

Second, we express gratitude.  We express gratitude to the officers who responded to the shooting and we pray for the well-being of those officers who were injured as they attempted to stop the shooter:  Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga, Anthony Burke, Timothy Matson, John Persin and Tyler Pashel. We express gratitude for the overwhelming outpouring of support from the Jewish community and even the non-Jewish community throughout the country who declared that this horrific act is un-American. This is not Berlin in 1938.  This is not Kristallnacht.  This is the United States in 2018.  It was even reported that two Muslim organizations have raised nearly $200,000 to help victims and their families.

Third, we turn to God and pray.  We have been lulled into thinking that everything is okay in America.  If we make aliya then we have to deal with acts of terror, but in America we are safe and we don’t really need God to protect us from anti-semites.  Perhaps some of us may have felt like Bar Kochba when, according to the Talmud Yerushalmi, he turned to God and said, “Do not help and do not hinder us!”  Leave me alone.  I don’t need you.  I can handle this on my own.  This attack makes us realize more than ever that we are not in control.  We are vulnerable and the only constant in our lives is God and we pray to God that we shall never experience another act of terror like this ever again.

Fourth, we work harder to protect ourselves and our religious institutions.  We act upon the fifth knock of the Beloved from Rav Soloveitchik’s work, “Fate and Destiny,” that “divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker.”  This was true in the creation of the State of Israel and we need to lobby our political leaders to ensure that this remains true in America, as well.  We are scared now, but, again, this is not Berlin in 1938. We have much power in this country, we will protect ourselves and our religious institutions and we will use our power to defeat those who spew and act upon venomous anti-semitism in this country.

Fifth, we change the culture of discourse.  This may be the hardest thing for us to do.  There is much debate as to whether and to what extent our political leaders are to blame for this attack.  I believe that words matter.  As Bret Stephens pointed out, if this was true when President Obama did not refer to ISIS as the Islamic State and acknowledge the religious component of this movement, then it is also true when President Trump uses fighting language that emboldens anti-semites.  Make no mistake about it, both politicians on both sides of the partisan aisle and the media often feed off of our emotions and stir up controversy and anger because doing so wins votes and boosts ratings.  But it also creates a culture for extremists, both on the left and the right, who use this language to incite them.  And now that we are so insistent that to solve this divisiveness, our political or societal approach is better, we will work even harder to “win” and we will likely use even more divisive language to win which will only further embolden extremism and anti-semitism.  Anti-semitism is a virus, but it needs the appropriate environment to spread it and, unfortunately, we have tilled the poisonous soil to create that environment.

In the spirit of being Men and Women of Destiny, let us respond to the horrific act of hate in the Tree of Life synagogue last Shabbat by pledging to create a safe space of love in our own synagogues.  I understand that it is hard for many of us the change our feelings about, and tone towards, the “other” because we are infuriated that the “other” doesn’t agree with us, but let’s start with our behavior in the synagogue.  When we walk into our synagogues, let us pledge to observe two religious precepts.  First, “והייתם נקיים מה׳ ומישראל” (Bamidbar 32:22).  Let us be innocent from God and Israel.  Even if we do not intend our words to be inflammatory, let us make sure that our words cannot be misconstrued by others as being inflammatory or insensitive.  At the same time, “הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Give others the benefit of the doubt. If you can interpret someone else’s words in two ways, interpret it in a way that puts the other person in the best possible light.  Act sensitively and judge others favorably – that’s the pledge.  That’s how we begin to change the culture of discourse in this country.  We are a “ממלכת כהנים,” a kingdom of priests.  We have the ability to shape the world.  So let us to take the pledge, beginning in our synagogues.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.