Michael Bernstein

The many sides of love: facing Charlottesville with conviction

“Amazing Grace” is being sung at the memorial service for the woman murdered in Charlottesville by a man cleaving to Nazi ideology and white supremacist organizations. Like the killer who gunned down nine parishioners of Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, the man who ran down Heather Heyer by slamming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters soaked himself in a world of hate, venerated the architects of the Holocaust. and undertook his actions with malicious intent. Unlike those of Dylan Roof, however, the actions of the murderer and his compatriots in Charlottesville have started a convoluted conversation around moral equivalency rather than a united call against white supremacy and a commitment to root out the extremist ideologies that fuels it.

While many lament the absence of an unambiguous voice of leadership, what strikes me is the muddle of responses among my own communities, from friends, Facebook and otherwise, and public figures. There are several factors that contribute to this muddle.

The first is the nature of fear itself. As is deeply felt in facing Islam-inspired acts of terror, fear may sharpen the sense of danger but it rarely focuses the response. And as a Rabbi, as a Jew, as one who loves many people who are vulnerable, the red and black insignias on flags, white hoods, symbols of the Confederacy wielded with the intention to belittle are not the celebration of a benighted heritage, but the defiant statement that all are not created equal and only some are meant to reap the fruits and protections of the United States of America. For all whose displayed, secret, or embedded identities connect them to these symbols and their victims, Charlottesville looms larger than its numbers.

The second is that our personal conversations are so broken. Our ability to encounter people, even people we know well, as complex and capable of teaching us rather than as potential targets for our vitriolic righteousness or sources of danger to either our sense of selves or, G*d forbid, our well-being. The intensity of the march and its aftermath only raises the stakes, thickening both the ideological ties that bind and the protective walls that blind. This effect is exacerbated by what I see as a difficult truth: Our identities impact what each of us has at stake, differently. Well-meaning calls to share pain and vulnerability are swallowed in real chasms that separate us according to how safe it is to be our true ourselves.

And that brings us to the third specter: politics. How can we talk politics when we talk about things that go to our very soul, body, and integrity. And, how can we not! To avoid deep rifts we take politics off the table sometimes and swept away with it is the ability to find language to build a national consensus against bigotry and an undiluted respect for the safeguards of democracy. The illusion that some things are political and some things are not means that sometimes we walk on eggshells and sometimes we wield sledgehammers, but the times when we reach out to each other across disagreements become rare.

I am a political person and I believe that there must be policy-oriented approaches to mend much of what is broken in the country. I am tempted like many to see weakness in another’s political position as an opportunity to put forward what I believe will lead to more justice, more prosperity and more security. However, I see Charlottesville as a tear in a fabric that can only be mended with national commitment against any ideology that treats any human being as not worthy of dignity. And in seeing Charlottesville this way, I also affirm a need to find national consensus not on a particular policy but on an affirmation that no religious belief, origin, personal identiity, mode of attraction, sex or love – or even ideology – renders any human being less worthy of being treated as human, subject to our society’s protections, penalties and responsibilities to each other. There are not “many sides” when one perpetrates an act of hate, but only a multiplicity of ways to see the world can fill in the picture of love.

The words of Heather Heyer’s mother echo the Mourners Kaddish as she affirms that her daughter’s heartbreaking death would only magnify her legacy of seeking justice and living with love. May the holy work of those who oppose hatred be granted success be indeed magnified and sanctified and may the difficult path forward be one of blessing, justice, and peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.
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