People before Principles, Sanctity before Safety: A Jewish Reflection on Orlando

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Like most Americans, I awoke on Sunday morning to hear the devastating news from Orlando. However, as a Jewish American, I had the idiosyncratic experience of processing the tragedy while also celebrating what should have been the joyous Jewish festival of Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the biblical story of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. As I listened to that majestic tale chanted from our community’s ancient, sacred Torah scroll, I couldn’t help but mediate my profound sadness through the prism of the narrative, looking to that foundational myth for some comfort or wisdom that might help me as I rumbled with the questions of “why?” and “what now?”

The story as it is told in Exodus relates that, at Sinai, there was a moment of direct encounter between God and the Children of Israel. The Israelites, we are told, heard God’s voice; not filtered through an angel, a prophet, or some other kind of messenger, but, rather, directly from the source itself. Their reaction to this experience is surprising. Upon hearing God’s voice, they say to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:16).

A midrashic tradition explains that, upon hearing God’s voice, the people’s souls began trying to escape from their bodies, like iron being drawn to a magnet or like a small child stopping everything to greet her father the moment she hears his keys jingle in the door. When the people realized their souls were shuffling off their mortal coils to return to their source, they begged Moses to speak on God’s behalf so that they would not die.

This interpretation underscores for me several crucial points worthy of our consideration at this fragile moment:

First, life is a primary and virtually unimpeachable religious value in the Jewish tradition. Religious acts, theological beliefs, and spiritual experiences do not justify bloodshed or the loss of life. Even a direct, face-to-face encounter with God is not important enough to warrant death. Indeed, we even have a tradition that an unmediated encounter with God should be interrupted in order to care for the needs of others, even strangers, as the patriarch Abraham demonstrates in Genesis 18:1-2. The rabbinic tradition thus understands the imperative in Leviticus 18:5, “and you shall live through them,” to also imply that we must not die through observing the Torah’s commands. Jewish law must be interpreted and applied in a way consistent with human life and human dignity; and, if one is ever presented with a choice between death and sin, the general rule is to commit the sin in order to live.

This, to me, is significant, because it teaches that to adhere to ideologies over life is unforgivable and that to justify death in God’s name is not an expression of religion, but rather a perversion of it. That, of course, applies to barbaric and cowardly acts of terror such as the crime carried out in Orlando, but it also applies to interpretations of the Bible that disable entire communities of God’s children from living in fullness and in dignity. Put bluntly, to understand biblical verses like Leviticus 18:22 in a way that casts homosexuality as a sin or same-sex intimacy as a crime is to commit the fundamental heresy (in the Jewish view, anyway) of putting revelation before life.

It is similarly sinful to place an ideological commitment to the principle of gun rights over the real lives of people who are murdered or maimed daily in our country by easily-accessed weapons of war.

What happened in Orlando calls, then, not only for a renunciation of violence, but also to commit to placing people before principles, life over ideology.

My second takeaway will perhaps sound paradoxical given my first. The midrashic understanding of the revelation story points to a Jewish belief that we humans are fundamentally spiritual beings who have a brief material existence. Each of us is a piece of an eternal, infinite All that momentarily cools and slows down to become flesh and blood, sojourning for a relatively small amount of time only to eventually reunite with the eternal, infinite All from which we came.

This, to me, is significant, because it reminds me that life does not end with death, just as it does not begin with birth. What we call death is merely a stage in an eternal journey. The dead, then, are perpetually with us. That’s why the Jewish memorial prayer asks that the souls of our loved ones “be bound up in the bonds of life [everlasting].” We acknowledge that, while physically gone, our loved ones will always remain spiritually alive. Their essence endures. I know full well that this belief may not necessarily comfort a mother who just lost her child in a senseless terrorist attack. But personally, I find it helpful and comforting to remember that those innocent victims in Orlando remain with us all, bound up with us in the bonds of life.

The Jewish belief that life does not end with death also has moral implications. While it is true that, in the Jewish tradition, life generally takes precedence over religious precepts, there are yet some rules that are inviolable, even at the cost of one’s life. Classically, these rules are understood to include sins like murder, sexual crimes like rape or incest, and idolatry. This means that physical life is not ultimately the Jewish tradition’s highest value. Our highest value is serving God. And Jews believe God’s agenda for us is to advance love, inclusion, compassion, justice, and peace in the world. In other words, life is only of primary value when it is used to advance our purpose.

This means that we are duty-bound not to sacrifice godliness at the altar of our own security. We must not let our desire to be safe prevent us from truly living. For our material existence is fragile and fleeting. There is no such thing as complete security. And we risk losing everything good life has to offer in the quixotic quest for safety, everywhere at all times. We must not let our fear force us to lose out on this precious brief moment of physical life.

The Jewish belief that serving God is paramount also means we must reject politicians and policies that would force us to sell our commitment to God’s agenda of oneness and love for the magic beans of security or the hollow rush of vengeance. We are duty-bound, then, to refute calls to secure ourselves through demonizing, criminalizing, or collectively punishing entire religious or ethnic communities. Not only will such acts not make us safer, it runs afoul of who we are, who we are called to be, and what we are charged to do in this world.

The Israelites’ encounter with God at Sinai reminds us that life is fragile, fleeting, and precious. We must make the most of that gift, and ensure others can as well. But it also insists that those lives are given to us only for the sake of bringing godliness into the world. At this fraught and painful moment, let us remember the primacy of our sacred purpose.

About the Author
Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.
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