My grandfather’s assassin and me
What do you think of when you think of the 1960s? For my sons, it’s pretty much ancient history, the Beatles and a bunch of hippies.
For others, it may be the music, or civil rights, and Vietnam. Maybe the moon shot.
When I think of the 1960s, I think of JFK, RFK and MLK. I think of these three great progressive American leaders partly because of their accomplishments, but mainly because they were all assassinated. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, his brother Robert, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968: traumas that rocked a nation.
And my grandfather — in 1966.
My grandfather, Rabbi Morris Adler, was shot in shul, on the bima during Shabbat morning services. Why? How? Before I answer that, before I tell about his death, I’d like to say a few words about his life. My grandfather was born in 1906 in a small town near Slutsk in Belarus, near Lithuania. He came with his mother and father, Rabbi Joseph and Jenny Adler, to America in 1913.
Like many young first-generation Jews of his generation, he attended City College of New York, and thought of becoming a psychiatrist or writer, but was drawn to the rabbinate.
Like so many newly minted American youths from old-world homes, he could not continue his father’s strictly Orthodox ways. He wanted to attend the new American center of Jewish learning, the relatively new Jewish Theological Seminary. After serving in communities as far flung as St Joseph, Missouri and Biloxi, Mississippi, he ended up accepting a position as a junior rabbi in Detroit in 1938, where, except for a stint in the service, as a chaplain in the Pacific theater in WWII, and sabbatical visits to his beloved Israel, he would remain for the rest of his life.
In addition to being known for his brilliant homiletics, and congregational service, he was active in the larger Detroit community, serving as chair of the highly significant Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers (it was the Motor City after all, in its heyday), and involved in a range of social, political, and ecumenical initiatives throughout his life there. There was no area of life or society that was foreign to him.
As a deeply observant Conservative rabbi, one of the themes that dominated his preaching and teaching was reconciling the present with the past, and bringing Jewish wisdom to bear on contemporary issues. He grappled with broad issues such as race relations, ecumenism, and also the more specifically Jewish questions of mitzvoth in modernity, such as the meaning of Shabbat observance in an age of technology, and, based in Detroit, especially regarding the rapidly expanding car culture.
But not everything was scholarly and somber. He was also a wit and raconteur, and his humor was always deeply Jewish humor. For instance, in the early part of the sixties, the space race dominated the headlines.
He had a joke about the first Jewish astronaut (of course this was decades before Ilan Ramon): A Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew were sent into space to understand the religious response to the experience of the cosmos. The capsule returns, and the first out is the Catholic. He looks positively inspired, and speaks glowingly of the spiritual feelings out there in the distant heavens. The Protestant too emerges, bright eyed, energized, and humbled by the view of planet Earth from afar. Then the Jew emerges, bleary and bloodshot, disheveled, looking exhausted, and explains: “The spaceship orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes. The sun rises then it sets then it rises again.. It’s shachris, mincha, mayriv, shachris, mincha, mayriv…“
That Saturday morning in 1966 happened to be the weekend commemorating Lincoln’s Birthday, another great man slain for his ideals. A young man named Richard Wishnetsky, a brilliant but mentally unstable student, whom my grandfather had counseled, came to shul that morning, stood up in the congregation, drew a gun, and ascended the bima. He waved everybody else off, and then standing next to my grandfather, he read a prepared speech, and then shot my grandfather, and shot himself. Wishnetsky died fairly soon afterwards. My grandfather was in a coma for three weeks until he died of his wounds. Amidst a crowd of over 15,000 people who gathered from near and far, he was buried on March 13, 1966.
My family never spoke in great detail about the event, and even less about the young man; he was crazy, deranged, and that’s all. Once, soon after having made aliyah in 1983, I was back, visiting my grandmother, and came across a book on some out-of-the-way shelf titled Murder in the Synagogue (the title being a take-off on the T.S. Eliot play Murder in the Cathedral about the death of Thomas Beckett ). It was a journalistic account of the events leading up to my grandfather’s death, with a focus on Wishnetsky.
I ended up taking it back to Israel, and one night alone in my apartment. I picked it up – and couldn’t put it down. I read the entire book through till morning, and the feeling that I had – more than shock, dismay, or even pain – was the feeling of something that for the want of a better word, was uncanny.
Murder in the Synagogue told of an individual who was indeed pathological, but whose sickness expressed itself in a deep-seated ideological critique of American society – and in particular the American Jewish community. My grandfather was the rabbi of a huge Conservative congregation which at that point had only recently made the move from its downtown Detroit urban home to a sprawling, grandiose, indeed cathedral-like suburban structure, whose prominent jagged peak was designed by the acclaimed architect Percival Goodman, to be reminiscent of Mount Sinai itself.
The community was a wealthy one – and Wishnetsky despised it for its opulent materialism, that led it, in his twisted opinion, to abandon everything moral and spiritual that Judaism stood for. His ideology stood supreme, and neither the complexity of human reality, nor human life itself would stand in the way of making his statement.
I said that the feeling I got from reading his last words was uncanny – simply because I had recently made aliyah, with a garin (a group) to a kibbutz, and had taken this life decision for many different sorts of reasons. There were of course many “pull” factors attracting me to Israeli society: its freshness and vibrancy, its centrality on the stage of Jewish history, the different horizons it embodied of what it could mean to be Jewish. And to be honest, as we told ourselves, rather arrogantly, Israel was way too important to be left up to the damn Israelis…
But there were also “push” reasons: the reasons why I wanted to leave the American Jewish community that I grew up in. And here was the difficult, uncanny insight that I had to acknowledge: They weren’t so far off from Wishnetsky’s critique. Compared to my experience in a Zionist youth movement (critical of adult society in ways only a youth movement can be…), and my impression of Israel, American Jewry (family and friends excepted of course) struck me as superficial, materialist, and woefully and fatefully ignorant. Of course, after becoming “absorbed” as we call it here, into Israeli society – there were no lack of critiques of Israel and Israelis as well. But there was something deeply felt about Wishnetsky’s militant dissatisfaction that — I was horrified to realize – I could identify with.
Of course what I couldn’t identify with was the pathology, the twisted hatred, including self-loathing, and the violence. There are perhaps some deep lessons here, that I see in Jewish history. A few months after leaving slavery in Egypt, the Israelites receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and immediately descend into avodah zarah, idolatry, in the episode of the Golden Calf, an image my grandfather referred to as “the Gold Standard” for idolatry.
What is idolatry? We often understand it to be a theological error, of deification of an object or force in place of God. More generally, though, idolatry can mean taking something that is a part of the whole, a means in the greater scheme – money, power, ego, natural forces – and turning it into an ends, a totality to be worshiped, to take the place of the Transcendent source of goodness and value. Moreover, idolatry and its effects are less about what we believe, and much more about how we treat people. It could be argued that even more than the theological “error” in idolatry, the rabbis were horrified by the fact that the idolaters they were familiar with practiced human sacrifice, that in their deification of nature, there was precious little room for the protection of the weak, the stranger, the preyed upon. It was the ethics of idolatry that made it an abomination.
When a human being kills another – when a deranged student kills a beloved rabbi, or a hateful racist a beloved minister and civil rights leader, or any other of the violent hate crimes that characterize society from then until now – it is a form of human sacrifice that testifies to the fact that its perpetrator has lost sight of human values, of the divinity in the face of his fellow human, and that murder becomes an act of idolatry, even if what he thought he was protesting was idolatry in his mind…
For in the end, as with any high-minded approach that ends in violence of this sort, it is not a values-based ideological critique; rather, it is an ego gone wild, that seeks to replace the Judge of All the Earth, and decree who shall live and who shall die.
The end result of idolatry is that the Tablets were broken: the promise of a deep, direct connection was shattered. Even that first Rabbi Moshe communicates with the people only through a veil.
But the broken tablets, too, are stored in the Ark: the memories linger, the messages and inspiration are immortal, if we are aware of them, and but enable them to accompany us:
What Thou givest, O Lord, Thou takes not away.
And bounties once granted, Shed their radiance evermore.
— M. Adler, May I Have a Word With You? p. 150
My grandfather was a renowned speaker and scintillating writer. Some called him the most quotable rabbi of his generation. I want to end with a quote of his, reprinted in many American siddurim, about the fundamental nature of prayer. He wrote:
“Our prayers are not answered when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.”
May we be a blessing to his memory, and may we all be blessed to have our prayers answered in this way.
Dr. Jeremy Benstein is Associate Director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, and the author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights, 2006).