Avi Weiss

Klinghoffer’s bloods cry out

The Bible's puzzling use of a plural noun aptly captures the murderous effect of an opera about terrorism

It was a moment I’ll never forget. It occurred on the day Israel withdrew from Gush Katif in the summer of 2005. I had been spending that week in Netzer Hazani, one of the small towns of Gush Katif.

Just before soldiers escorted out the remaining Israeli residents, we gathered at the home of Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, the beloved rabbi of the community. A few years earlier, Rabbi Arama had been murdered in a terrorist ambush attack as he was driving with his family near the Katif entrance. His children had emblazoned across the side of their modest home: kol d’mei abba tzo’akim alai min ha’adama – “The voice of my father’s bloods cry out from the ground.”

This sight made me shiver. The words derived from the narrative of the first murder recorded in the history of humankind—when Cain killed Abel.

After the killing, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain responds, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Then God says to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s bloods cry out to me from the ground” kol d’mei achicha tzoakim eilai min ha’adama. (Genesis 4:9–10)

Commentators have long wondered: why “bloods” in the plural?

The Talmud argues that, being the first to take life, “[Cain] inflicted upon Abel many wounds, for he did not know from where the soul would depart until he reached his neck.”

Another opinion suggests that the plural represents how it wasn’t just Cain who was murdered: also murdered were his unborn children—as well as their unborn children.

I’ve always considered the Torah’s message to be elastic, speaking to events as they unfold throughout history. As such, in recent days I’ve been reminded of this plural language—not “blood,” but “bloods”—in noting the John Adams opera that opens at the Met on Monday, October 20th: The Death of Klinghoffer.

On October 8, 1985, Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, were on a Mediterranean cruise, celebrating their wedding anniversary. Leon was 69 years old, bound in a wheelchair.

PLO terrorists took over the ship, shot him, and had him thrown overboard, still in his wheelchair. Afterward, Farouq Qaddoumi, the PLO foreign secretary, at first suggested that Marilyn had planned the murder, seeking to collect her husband’s life insurance. But the truth came out soon enough.

For me and for others, the Klinghoffer murder symbolizes the defenseless, innocent victims of the brutality of the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat. The image of Klinghoffer thrown overboard encompasses all the horrors of Palestinian terrorism—the 1970 hijacking of four planes; the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics; the 1974 attack on a school in Ma’alot that killed 22 children; the 1982 attack on the Great Synagogue in Rome during Shabbat services—examples outlast my breath in citing them.

I have led rallies around the world against Palestinian terror, and often in these we granted remembrance of the Klinghoffer murder center stage. For example, in 1988, after Arafat’s terrorist affiliation denied him entrance into the United States, the UN moved the General Assembly meeting from New York to Geneva so that he could participate. A group from my synagogue including Hillel Jaffe, David Mann, Howard Jonas and Bernie Glickman z”l, traveled to Geneva to protest. From aboard our rented small boat, with reporters nearby, we simulated throwing a wheelchair into the water. It didn’t take long for Swiss police to arrest us.


Why does the opera make me think of double blood? Because Klinghoffer’s blood was spilled once when he was murdered; and his blood is being spilled again on the stage of the Metropolitan opera hall, his murderers depicted in a sympathetic, even glorified light.

Even the opera’s very title, The Death of Klinghoffer, speaks volumes. The story of Leon Klinghoffer’s death is the story of a cruel murder, and yet the libretto presents the terrorists’ racial prejudice as if it were honorable. I quote:

You are always complaining

of your suffering

but wherever poor men

are gathered you can

find Jews getting fat.

You know how to cheat

the simple, Exploit

the virgin, Pollute

where you have exploited,

Defame those you cheated,

And break your own law

with idolatry.

America is one big Jew.

I recall from my youth the saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” Over the years I have come to understand that this is not true. Names do harm. Words do count. And while a word is a word, and a deed is a deed, words can lead to deeds.

Indeed, presenting the terrorists sympathetically abets terror. It sends a message to potential terrorists: Do your best; your deeds may someday be honored, even immortalized. It is bad enough that the libretto’s racism and hatred was originally produced; it is a second murder to have it staged afresh, in 2014.

To me, this contemporary production opens a Pandora’s box for the terrorists of today, whose recent horrific acts are still so fresh in our minds.

As a long-time protester, I’ve come to treasure first-amendment rights, and along with them the right to artistic freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means that everyone has a right to compose this kind of opera—and I honor that freedom. But such doesn’t mean the Met or any opera house is under obligation to present the work once composed. Not every letter sent to a newspaper is printed; not every book written is accepted for publication; not every drama penned deserves to be showcased at Lincoln Center.

Rabbis state that in the place of defilement there should be sanctification; in the place of darkness there should be light. And so, as The Death of Klinghoffer opens on the Met stage on October 20, to the desecration of the memory of Leon Klinghoffer, we too will be there, in the sanctification of his memory: studying Torah in an all-day vigil in front of the opera house at 65th Street and Broadway in Manhattan.  Every hour a delegation of students from local schools will arrive to join in.  If you can participate for any part of the day we will welcome you most heartily.

A large rally is planned for 6pm, when we will also be leafleting the event, urging theater patrons not to go in. To us, anyone who enters is an accomplice to the irreverence.


For me, protesting the Met brings back painful memories. On Sept 2, 1986, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry peacefully protested the appearance of the Moiseyev Dance Company. Our position was clear—until all Soviet Jews are free, no Soviet culture should be honored in the United States.

That night, during the performance – contrary to everything I stand for – militants inside the theater released tear gas, injuring many. As those inside poured out, some attacked the peaceful protesters. Some struck me, provoking my first heart attack. But this memory will not stop me from returning to Lincoln Center on October 20 to peacefully raise a voice of moral conscience – and I hope you will join me.


I close by returning to the Genesis narrative, when Cain asks the first question uttered by a human being in the Torah: hashomer achi anochi – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the narrative there is no distinct, immediate answer. The answer is the whole of the Torah; the answer is the way we choose to live our lives.

And that answer must be to declare loudly and clearly as appears later in the Torah: “Do not stand by as the blood of your brother is being spilled.” (Leviticus 19:16) As Leon Klinghoffer’s blood is spilled yet again, we cannot and will not be silent.

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.