Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

On Jewish Unity in the Aftermath of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

Amidst the horror of the massacre of 11 Jews during services in a Pittsburgh synagogue last shabbat and the severe injury to others still fighting for their lives, there has been a swirl of controversy over remarks by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

When asked pointedly in an interview published in a modern Orthodox paper, Makor Rishon, if the site of the murders was a “synagogue,” the haredi Lau dodged. He said it was a place where there are Jewish ritual objects, a place of meeting with God, but he would not say: “beit Knesset.”

Many have said that Lau was baited by the interviewer; there is no love lost, putting it mildly, between the ultra- and modern Orthodox camps. Lau’s remarks have certainly been quoted selectively and out of context and there is always the matter of translation. It is important to read the whole interview in the original, and here is the link to it:

In it, Lau resolutely condemned and expressed shock and grief about the murder of Jews, ba’asher hem yehudim: as Jews, period. It would seem, as we would expect, that the question of the victims’ non-Orthodox religious affiliation had been put to him by others, and he dismisses its relevance vehemently, to judge by the punctuation in the published interview, asking: זה משנה באיזה בית כנסת או נוסח הם מתפללים?!”

“Does it matter, in which beit knesset or with which nusakh [liturgical custom] they pray?!”And he does say, “beit knesset.”

The reporter then presses him, saying that “haredi” media refuse to call the Pittsburgh synagogue a “synagogue,” and asks, what does Lau say?

Here, he hedges and won’t do it.

Why? Because, presumably, in his understanding, for him to use the term “beit knesset” about a Conservative synagogue would be to confer his official validation of a variant of Judaism he does not consider authentic. The Chief Rabbinate, after all, denies the legitimacy of any but haredi Judaism and works to suppress, exclude, and persecute other variants, including modern Orthodoxy. Which surely is why the reporter conducting this interview sought to trip Lau up on this very point.

Many have now criticized the reporter for baiting Lau; for, at best, severe lack of judgment in using a horrific tragedy as an opportunity to score points against an ideological opponent (though if a modern Orthodox rabbi was in Lau’s office, something the modern Orthodox establishment badly wants, would he—sic—have said something different? None that I know of acknowledge Conservative Judaism as legitimate). In any case, if not an outright violation of journalistic ethics, the reporter’s choice of focus was as sectarian and partisan as Lau’s response.

Others, however, have gone beyond this, calling for a moratorium on discussion of the episode as unseemly and diversionary, saying that what is needed in this in this moment is solely to come “together as a community to mourn and to organize” appropriate responses, emotional and otherwise.

With that position, I disagree.

Absolutely, we need first, to mourn the dead (the Makor Rishon interview was published and the ensuing controversy erupted before the dead were even buried); and to support and comfort the bereaved, including the extended circles of those reeling after the murders—friends, neighbors of the victims, their rabbis—and the Jewish community as a whole as we take in the horror of this event, its broader context, and its implications.

But doing that should not silence the real and disturbing issues raised by that interview and the controversy surrounding it, nor should Rabbi Lau be given a pass for what he refused to say.

Rabbi Lau is not one individual who mis-spoke. He is Chief Rabbi of Israel, a very highly paid public official who represents “official Judaism” in Israel. It is very significant that, even in the context of such a tragedy, his religious politics ultimately trumped his own human and Jewish instincts.

Rabbi Lau is a symptom of a much larger problem. The discussion of the Pittsburgh massacre in the general Israeli media veered quickly into the sectarian, denominational issue. Radio and TV reports were full of pointed notice that the synagogue where the attack took place, Eitz Hayyim, is Conservative. The Makor Rishon reporter put this question to Lau not in contrast with broader reporting but as part of it. Lau missed a chance to do the right thing but, given the interests he represents and protects, nothing else was to have been expected.

The media in Israel absolutely have expressed horror about the attack and have covered it extensively and in depth. But the notice of it occurring in a Conservative synagogue has not been a side comment, simply an identifier. Reporters have made superficial comments about Conservative Judaism, providing a perfect example, were one needed, of the base ignorance in Israel of the Judaism of the Diaspora, which only a week prior, at the GA, was supposed to be a topic of serious discussion and plans for remediation. The comments about Conservative Judaism are rife with the texture of curio, as of a strange, even exotic phenomenon.

The fact that anything but some variant of Orthodoxy is largely a curiosity in Israel when it is not demonized, is the direct result of State policy, which gives Orthodoxy exclusive official recognition. Those making ignorant or voyeuristic comments about non-Orthodox expression are largely not to blame since dismissing any but some variety of Orthodoxy as inauthentic is official State policy.

When Jews at prayer in a Har Nof synagogue were murdered four years ago, there was no similar focus on the fact that it was a haredi synagogue; a fact which, if mentioned, was just an identifier, not the subject in its own right.

So Lau is a symptom of a much larger problem as well as a major contributor to it. The fact that the problem which is Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, a problem in the news often because of the Rabbinate’s abuses in administration of Jewish marriage, divorce, conversion, and of kashruth supervision–  the fact that this problem surfaced in this terrible context is no reason to ignore it in the name of Jewish solidarity. While we should absolutely pull together in the aftermath of this attack, unity should not be the cover for a festering issue which erupted in this context—because, obviously, as this episode shows, it is right there, waiting to erupt.

I would note that Ambassador Friedman, following the line of the Trump White House, has also called for “unity” in assigning sole blame for the massacre on the murderer who committed it. Under the cloak of needed communal “unity,” the call is to cease inquiry into, let alone action about, the broader context of hate speech, the marked increase in Jew-hating incidents, and the ready availability of such weapons as this mass murderer—and so many others– amassed in quantity, freely and legally.

The haredi establishment also regularly calls for “unity” at the Kotel, by which it means imposition of its religious practice on everyone who comes to the “national holy site” of the Jewish people.

Solidarity and behaving decently with one another absolutely is a much needed alternative model to the one the Chief Rabbinate—in either of its two heads—models. We should absolutely go ahead and overwhelm the sorry stuff we hear from these and other official rabbis with far superior alternatives. But we should not give Rabbi Lau or any who think and act like him a pass in the name of the very solidarity, the spiritual generosity, the ahavat yisrael, of which he and they regularly show themselves  incapable.

Contradictory as it may seem, we need to mourn the victims as Jews, period, but also to highlight the marginalizing, the  Othering, of Jews and shuls which a systematic state policy has made non-normative. As some have asserted, we need to honor Jews as Jews, not only in death, but in life.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.