David Mitchell
David Mitchell

Rabbinic responses to terror and tragedy

During a recent visit to Durham University, the academic sitting across the faculty table wanted to know if my colleagues and I preferred to deliver sermons about the world of the bible or the present day. I explained that we tried to do both at the same time. “Really?” he replied, “then why have there been so few rabbis publicly addressing the recent terrorist attacks in France?”

I responded that many of us had spoken out against the violence and terror, but recognised that we are often disconnected voices with few published records of our collective response.

That moment fired me up. I contacted Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, who took less than 30 seconds to agree to co-edit a volume of sermons by Liberal and Reform Rabbis; and so began the publication of Terror, Trauma and Tragedy.

Collating sermons and essays by 24 rabbis on three such heavy subjects was not supposed to be inspiring. My colleagues have not shied away from confronting the pain of life and the evils of humanity but have written with great sensitivity, drawing on their personal experiences, including their proximity to recent terrorist atrocities and other traumatic life events. And yet their optimism and hope shine through. Unsurprisingly, there are references to many classic Jewish texts, including those that challenge us to ‘not stand idly by the blood of our neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:16).

Rabbi Helen Freeman, my colleague at West London Synagogue, recalls the Shabbat after 9/11: “We had many Americans in our congregation; people who had been unable to get home because the air space over New York was still shut. Our then director of music asked me if we might finish the Erev Shabbat service on the Friday night with our own national anthem, followed by The Star-Spangled Banner as a sign of solidarity with our American friends who were marooned in London, far from home and family…

“In writing my sermon for that Shabbat, trying for the first time in my rabbinic career to respond directly to a terrorist attack that shocked the world, I was able to respond not only to the Torah portion’s beginning, about standing up to be counted, but also to the fact that so much bravery, and heroism, and human goodness was shown by the people of New York, especially the fire fighters who ran up the stairs of the Twin Towers as so many other people were running down.”

Bromley Reform Synagogue’s Rabbi Jason Holtz recalls the 2011 shootings near his former pulpit of Tucson, USA: “It happened outside a supermarket while our Member of Congress was meeting with people in the community… I will never forget that day, when six people were murdered and many more injured. I will also never forget how the community came together to support one another in the aftermath. But I also know that the response to the Tucson shooting, indeed all shootings in America, is unfinished until there are sensible gun safety laws. We continue to pray and work for the day when “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,” (Isaiah 2:4) and guns no longer plague our cities.”

After the 2015 Copenhagen terrorist attack, Rabbi Sandra Kviat wrote: “The outpourings of grief and sorrow are only matched by the growing mountain of flowers outside the main synagogue in Copenhagen. The sense of loss is immense… At the gathering on Monday night to honour both the slain Jewish security guard Dan Uzan and the first victim, film-maker Finn Nørgaard, there was a gentle silence among the thousands of people in the synagogue… Fear, anger and retribution became the theme of the session I ran at Limmud 14 days after the attack. The main part of the discussion centered on the rabbis’ use of the conflict between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 32-33) as a strategy for solving conflicts.”

In a world in which atrocities seem an almost daily occurrence, this collection of sermons offers an array of rabbinic voices that challenge and comfort in equal measure.

• Terror, Trauma and Tragedy – Rabbinic Responses, edited by rabbis Jonathan Romain and David Mitchell, is published by the Movement for Reform

About the Author
David Mitchell is a rabbi at West London Synagogue
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