In these tumultuous days, perversity replaces piety. Here is one example.
Some 90 years ago in Berlin, Abraham Joshua Heschel was shocked to realize that with all the comings and goings of city life he had failed to notice that the sun was setting, and that the time for the evening prayer had arrived. Reflecting on the episode later in life, he recalled: “I had forgotten God — I had forgotten Sinai — I had forgotten that sunset is my business…”
I was reminded of this stirring episode when footage emerged this week of young Jewish men perpetrating a pogrom in the West Bank town of Huwara, close to Nablus. It appears that as Huwara burned, they stepped back from their spree of destruction to recite the evening prayer.
Earlier on February 26, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv had been slain in Huwara. The outrage and offense of that heinous act were beyond expression, and their family’s nobility of spirit in their grief was beyond belief. In such extreme moments, thoughts of rage and vengeance may possess the human heart. That is neither surprising nor scandalous. The surprise and the scandal are to be found in the fact that hundreds of Jewish settlers translated that rage into action. They burned cars and homes, and caused the youngest and oldest in Huwara to pray that their homes would not be breached.
While these Palestinians were praying for survival, their assailants took a few moments off from the tiring business of perpetrating a pogrom in order to recite the evening prayer. By so doing, they demonstrated both that their frenzy of violence was carried out with a degree of premeditation and intention; and that they see no contradiction between the words of the liturgy and their deeds of hate, between prayer and pyromania.
Much is in the balance in Israel during these days. The checks and balances of constitutional democracy are being dismantled. A fierce debate rages within Israeli society, and the stability of the Middle East is fragile. I choose to focus in on those who combine psalms with napalm because they epitomize the depths to which our society has descended.
Heschel’s anecdote reminds us of the potential for growth and change to be found within Jewish tradition. Heschel is jolted into an awareness that the humdrum passage of time can be punctuated by moments of transcendent awareness. The same person whose lips were praying in Berlin found his legs praying some decades later in Selma, Alabama, as he marched for civil rights. Here the potential for activism and agitation inherent in Jewish religiosity is highlighted. What would we have thought of Jews wrapped in the cloak of that religiosity mixing the ancient words of the liturgy with the preparation and deployment of Molotov cocktails? I shudder to think.
Some of the political leaders to whom these religious rioters look for inspiration have decried the pogrom. Some, but not all. As I was leaving a visit to Huwara organized by Tag Meir, an organization that insists on expressing solidarity to Jews and Arabs alike in the wake of hate attacks, I heard that Israel’s finance minister expressed the enlightened opinion that Huwara should indeed be razed to the ground, but by the Army, not by vigilantes. It is hard to think of this as a stance of moral reproof. Rather, it adds oil to the flames, heaping perversity upon perversity. This is not the sound of someone losing his head. It carries the prospect of all of us losing our souls.
From Abraham Joshua Heschel, I have learned that a Jew is encouraged to step back from the quotidian flow of life and take stock, to swim upstream against the prevailing social norms and to uphold what is right even when such a stance exacts a price. From him, I also learned that it is sometimes necessary to call out behavior as a hillul Hashem, a desecration of the Divine Name. I call hillul Hashem, and pray that one day soon, true piety can overcome this tsunami of perversity.