The Lesson NOT To Learn From Newtown

Of the many critical insights I gained by studying the writings of the late theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, one that had a particularly profound impact on me related to the challenge of talking about God.

We humans have limited vocabularies. Some of us are far more eloquent than others, to be sure, but none of us have the words that we would need to adequately express the “otherness” of God. We try, sometimes magnificently, to give expression to the awe and wonder that are intrinsic to God’s world, but even our best efforts are doomed to fall short. All we can do -– as the Shabbat morning liturgy suggests -– is express an infinitesimal fraction of what there is to say.

So, sadly, is this insight also true when it comes to grief. Words are rarely as expressive of what we are feeling in our deepest selves as are the tears that we cry. This is true enough any time that we lose someone that we have loved. But as the rabbis of the Talmud might have said, al ahat kammah vhammah how much more so is it true when our grief is generated by violence that is both inexplicable and incomprehensible.

Such is the conundrum of Newtown, Conn. As our brothers and sisters in Israel have had to say so many times over the years in response to senseless violence, ein milim. There are no words that are adequate to convey the depth and breadth of our horror and dismay. Ours is a country united in grief. This is a dark time in America, made all the more surreal by its juxtaposition with what is ordinarily a joyous holiday season. In most instances, the most eloquent response is a kind of stunned silence– a tacit admission that our words are simply inadequate to the task at hand.

Of one thing, it seems, we can be sure. Even at a moment such as this, fools will rush in with their inanities to disturb the sacred silence that honors our grief. And indeed, such has been the case this past week. Two fools– both former, serious contenders for the Republican presidential nomination– graced us with their insights into the Newtown tragedy. And once again, we were left thinking, ein milim there are no words adequate to express exactly how offensive and unhelpful their contributions were to our attempts at healing.

Let us deal first with the erstwhile former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Following the shooting on Friday, Huckabee asked, rhetorically, why we should “be so surprised” at the violence when “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”

As Seth Meyers and Amy Pohler might have asked on Saturday Night Live, “Really?”

As a person of faith and a clergy person, I find it difficult enough, under normal circumstances, to abide the preachy certitudes of those on the religious right who claim to know ultimate truth. As a Jew, it saddens me to have to add- quickly- that our own faith community is not without such types. I am reminded of when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe claimed that the heavy Israeli losses in the first Lebanon war were due to the failure of Israelis to check their mezuzot regularly. That comment, which was widely reported in the Israeli press at the time, was a terribly painful example of a great religious leader using simplistic Torah to hurt instead of to heal.

Mike Huckabee, who is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, brought his religious sensitivities to the presidential campaign of 2008. He has a long history of blurring the line between the religious and the secular, and has continued to do so as a political commentator now that he is no longer an active politician. That is certainly his right. But to imply, as he did, that the tragedy of Newtown was a result of not being allowed to say the Lord’s Prayer in school, and that we are all to blame for maintaining the line between church and state in the public schools, is nothing short of obscene. Foolish is much too kind a word to describe it. He’s been backtracking since he said it, but he said what he meant. It is a gross embarrassment to the idea of religion, and to God.

And then there’s Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who was, at least for a short while, the putative savior of the Republican Party in this most recent election- the candidate who was going to elevate the field and pose a real challenge to President Obama. That strategy worked until he opened his mouth, and it became clear, oh so quickly, that he nothing much of any value to say.

Well, miraculously, the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey once again. In response to the tragedy in Newtown, Governor Perry suggested that teachers should be armed, and that would prevent such occurrences in the future.

Great idea, Governor Perry! Let’s put even more guns out there, and yes, let’s have more guns in schools. That’s the ticket! Let’s put more guns where children, healthy and less so, might be able to somehow gain access to them. Don’t you just love that line of thinking? And besides, I know a Middle School teacher who thinks that, given the behavior challenges of middle school children, having guns around might just put the fear of God in those rascals…

Please, God, save us from these people…

Governors Huckabee and Perry have provided us with two lessons not to learn from last week’s tragedy. It is more than painful enough to have to deal with our sorrow without having to fend off reasoning that only exacerbates the pain.

When words are inadequate, silence is invariably the best way to express our deepest feelings. Sometimes- often times- less is more when it comes to offering words of comfort. We must all be allowed to honor our grief.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.