When Shabbat was Broken

Shabbat was broken. Whether we heard about it during the day, whether at synagogue or later, or in the evening, we all heard and felt how the sacredness and peacefulness of Shabbat was shattered by the bullets of a terrible anti-Semite, a white supremacist anti-immigrant ultra-right individual driven by ancient and contemporary hatred, envy, and evil intent. That act of anti-Semitic terrorism, the worst attack against Jews on American soil in history, broke more than one Shabbat. It broke the heart of American Jewry.

Shabbat already had been broken for me. After reading the passage in the Torah about the binding of Isaac I reflected in my sermon about the yahrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin. I spoke about the pain I felt then, and still feel now, in recognizing how he fell victim to a toxically divided and vilifying discourse where posters of the prime minister photoshopped as wearing an SS uniform were seen all over Israel. Why can we not honor our disagreements, celebrate our diversity, rather than spew hatred on the other side, I asked. The Mishnah gives us the model of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who disagreed on almost everything but still recognized that each other’s views both were the words of the Living God.

At a gathering of the Jewish community of northern New Jersey on October 29 in memory of those who lost their lives in synagogue in Pittsburgh, Senator Cory Booker reminded us of another lesson from the pages of ancient Jewish history when he recounted how the historian Josephus explains that the devastation the Romans brought upon Jerusalem was all the worse because of the fighting and hatred between the residents of the city. On Shabbat morning, I bemoaned how we still suffer from the results of hateful partisanship, as we were finally “resting” from a week of attacks from another domestic terrorist, the mail bomber. I applauded the president’s firm condemnation of political violence and then urged that we all must find a way to go beyond that, to root out hatred and bigotry from all sides.

Looking toward what I thought at the time would be a better week, I reminded those in the room of the importance of voting, for whatever side, as an affirmation of the democratic principle that differing values and perspectives can co-exist respectfully with each other.

Shabbat then broke for me when I encountered a couple of people, visiting the congregation that day, who were particularly angry with me and my words. I wasn’t upset that they disagreed with what I said. One of the most important things I learned in rabbinical school is that if everyone agrees with what we say, then we haven’t really said anything. And neither was I despondent because they interpreted my words as overly partisan when my intention was to lower the wall of partisan divide. Another thing I have learned through my years in the rabbinate is that no sermon is perfect, that we rabbis are not infallible, and that, God willing (and with the consent of our congregations), we always will have another Shabbat to speak again and reclarify our message. Every year we return to the same passages of the Torah as we are given another chance to read it anew.

What broke my heart that Shabbat morning was the accusation that I “was probably one of those rabbis who sat shiva two years ago when Trump was elected.” “God forbid!” I responded. I never would express such disrespect against a president of the United States. I am a proud American and I am proud of our democracy. I may disagree with the president. (I have disagreed with certain policies of every president and I certainly disagree with most of the policies of this president.) But I am faithful and loyal to the Constitution and the democratic system that it guarantees. Respecting leaders we disagree with is the test of democracy. To sit shiva over an election would be to sit shiva over democracy. God forbid. The inability of my disgruntled visitors to recognize this on Shabbat reminded me of the challenge that remains for us as we continue to fight for the freedoms and values that we hold dear.

And then Shabbat was shattered.

The very peace of a sanctuary and its celebration of life was denied to 11 fallen Shabbat worshippers and the scarred survivors. We were all jarringly woken up from a dream where we thought we found safe haven on these shores, a place to engage in society without fear of physical assault. And now, 80 years after synagogues were destroyed across Nazi Germany in the terrible “Night of Broken Glass,” we still find ourselves yet endangered, the object of bitter hatred.

Amidst the shock and the mourning, amidst the calls for more security and more sensible gun legislation, the country is engaging in a discussion about the nature of our rhetoric and how words can inspire terrible acts of violence. The hatred with which certain sectors of our country are turning away from the value of helping others, of the words on the Statue of Liberty that welcomed my ancestors when they arrived in this country—”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”—should call us all to action to stand up and defend what was and has been the greatness of America.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, noted in its statement in the wake of the attack upon Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh: “The Jewish community, proud descendants of refugees who, like all of America’s diverse communities, found safety and happiness on America’s shores, remain steadfast in our commitment that these tragic losses will be given meaning by our worthy and courageous actions, and that the memories of the fallen will be a blessing to the living. It is not lost on us that Tree of Life appears to have been singled out for celebrating HIAS Refugee Shabbat.”

Historians are trained to see the connections between the various dots that make history. Anti-Semitism always has been closely tied to nativism, to ultra-nationalism, and to a general prejudice against minorities, immigrants, and refugees. The Israeli ambassador to the United States obviously was trying to be diplomatic after the shooting in Pittsburgh, when he asked about the rise of anti-Semitism in America and its relationship to the president’s rhetoric. Foreign diplomats are trained not to criticize their hosts publicly. The ambassador said that there are anti-Semites on all sides. The ambassador did not endorse the president’s notorious remark after Charlottesville, when he said that there were good people on both sides. The ambassador’s twist on that statement was that there are bad people on both sides.

But we are left with the same disturbing moral equivalency. For sure there are anti-Semites on the right and the left. And in the center. We Jews are painfully aware that there are people everywhere who hate us. But the problem with allowing for a moral equivalency is that it implies an acceptance of hateful discourse. There are anti-Semites on all sides. But the worst anti-Semites, our worst enemies, are white nationalists. Is 80 years to the day since the pogrom against German Jewry in the Third Reich too long to remember that?

Hateful discourse is dangerous whenever it is let loose. This time, again, it was let loose against us.

We must affirm the freedom of speech so that we can speak love against hate. We must affirm the freedom of the press so that our journalists can continue to serve as the friends of the people. And we must affirm the freedom of religion so that we can worship without fear. Through such work will we remember those who fell last Shabbat in synagogue in the sanctification of God’s name.

Last week Shabbat was broken. But we believe in the mending of broken pieces, in what we call tikkun olam. Last week Shabbat was broken, but Shabbat comes again every week. To fix Shabbat, let us work on fixing the broken pieces of our country, especially as we remember this Shabbat that a different country across the sea was broken 80 years ago. Let us begin anew to celebrate the real America, as a broken-hearted American Jewry remembers the promise made to the Jewish community by our country’s first president, “For happily, the government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction.”

About the Author
David J. Fine is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ, and president of the New Jersey Rabbinical Assembly. He received his PhD from the City University of New York in 2010, and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999.
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