Not in God’s Name: Terror in Sri Lanka

Many of us are still reeling from the horrific string of suicide bombings which were carried out by a domestic militant group at churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka that claimed the lives of at least 290 people. As a Jew, this senseless murder of hundreds of worshippers brings me back to 2002 when Hamas carried out a suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya during a Pesach seder.  Initial investigations have revealed that the attack was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand last month.  Regardless of whether this linkage is accurate, all men and women should speak out against murder, hatred and racism carried out in the name of religion and I believe that our Jewish tradition addresses this issue in perhaps one of the more unlikely places in our Pesach Seder.

Towards the end of the Seder that we observed this past week, we read the passage of “Shfoch chamatcha,” which asks God to pour out His wrath against the nations that do not know God.  On the surface, it seems that we are praying to God to exact revenge against the non-believers because they perpetuate a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name by rejecting God.  In modern times, some were not comfortable with this desire for retribution and with a view that God is vengeful.  Some traditional prayers that were deemed archaic and inapplicable to modern times by some in the reform movement were replaced or changed and the same thing happened with the prayer of shfoch chamatcha.  Rabbi Leopold Stein, a 19th century German reform Rabbi, changed the text of the prayer in his Seder Ha’avodah from “pour out Your anger,” to “pour out Your spirit.”  He was uncomfortable with a prayer that God should destroy you if you are a nonbeliever.

However, the prayer of “shfoch chamatcha,” which asks God to pour out His wrath against the nations that reject God, is followed by a second verse, “ki achal et Yaakov v’et navaihu haishamu,” or “because they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his Temple.”  These two verses of “shfoch chamatcha” and “ki achal et Yaakov” are taken from a Chapter 79 of Tehillim, a chapter which describes a heathen nation that uses its lack of belief in God to destroy Jews and Judaism.  As such, the prayer of shfoch chamatcha is no longer a prayer to destroy nonbelievers, but it becomes a prayer to destroy religiously-inspired violence.

Pesach is the holiday that celebrates a God who is on the side of the weak and the oppressed and we do not believe in destroying others simply for having different beliefs.  In fact, the rasha, the wicked son, still sits at our table, but the only individual that we want destroyed is the individual who uses religion for violence because religion must lead to ethical and moral behavior. We do not believe that religion should be used as a tool for violence.  In “Not in God’s Name,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states, “It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief.  It is our task to be a blessing to the world.   The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry… To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.”

On Pesach we celebrate concern for the powerless, the poor and the vulnerable.  When Jews were being killed for their religion during the Crusades, the prayer of “shfoch chamatcha” became popular in Ashkenazic communities as a statement that we are not like the Crusaders.  We reject religiously inspired violence.  At the end of the Seder and throughout the holiday of Pesach, we pray that a Godless religion that leads to violence has no place in our world and that Godless behavior, like the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, destroys the religious message that we want to bring to the world.  We commit ourselves to be faithful to God and to use religion to as a source of blessing to the world and not as a source of violence.

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