Sitting Shiva for the State of Jewish America
On October 27th, 2018, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and opened fire on congregants while proclaiming his desire to kill all Jews. This was an antisemitic massacre, plain and simple. It was not an isolated incident, but a violent outburst in a climate of antisemitism which has festered in the United States for some time.
In the last week since the massacre, Jews in America have been in mourning and in reflection over what this attack means for our community, our understanding of Jewish identity in the States, and how we address the cultural antisemitism which informed it.
For me, this massacre has drawn me back into an ongoing internal dialogue about if or how to appropriately express Jewish identity, particularly in recognition of my ancestors’ struggles against antisemitism across Europe and the distance they chose to put between themselves as Jewish identity, much as many American Jews have attempted to assimilate to avoid violence and mistrust in the States.
Bowers’ violation of our community took place during Parashat Vayera. In the Torah text for this week, Abraham is visited by three angels who announce the coming birth of his son, Isaac. The parashah also tells of Abraham’s argument with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s visitation by two angels, the exile of Hagar and Ishmael as well as the appearance of another angel who rescues them, and the testing of Abraham through G-d’s command to sacrifice Isaac which is also stopped by another angel.
Collectively, these are perhaps some of the more disturbing stories of the tradition, showcasing G-d as a force of destruction, punishment, and severity only sometimes countered with compassion and mercy facilitated by the acts of humans and angels.
There are also three themes from these stories which I think strongly inform Jewish identity. First, this text teaches that G-d welcomes conversation and even disagreement. Abraham not only is privy to G-d’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but is able to debate the plan with G-d, ultimately sparing the lives of Lot and his daughter. Second, from Lot’s story we learn that hospitality towards strangers may very well save us from destruction. This value repeats over and over in Jewish history: welcome strangers because you too have been a stranger. It’s the very value which informs HIAS, the organization Bowers specifically mentioned as informing his hatred of Jews. Third (and in contrast to the first), we are challenged to obey G-d even when the commandments before us seem life-threatening to us or others. Abraham is commanded not only to exile Hagar and Ishmael, but to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Nevertheless, from these tests of faith, G-d blesses generations of people.
Whether we take these stories literally or as mythic means of creating cultural identity, we gain from them an understanding of the Jewishness of values like active contemplation about the nature of G-d and the universe, extending welcoming hospitality to strangers, and striving to obey the direction of G-d in our lives despite our own uncertainty.
Each of these themes echoes in the tragedy of Saturday’s massacre….
This first is probably the most salient right now in this time of mourning. How could G-d allow this slaughter—during shabbat, no less? Is this part of some divine plan? Why? Did the Jews of the Tree of Life synagogue offend G-d somehow? (Perhaps, as suggested by at least one Orthodox rabbi, by holding a bris for the child of a same-sex couple).
The second of course is immediately recognizable in understanding the immediate why this synagogue was targeted by Bowers. He hated immigrants. He hated refugees. He hated us for advocating on their behalf, as G-d and our traditions teach us to. From this hatred, he learned to blame us, to hate us, as Jews.
The third is perhaps the most challenging in the aftermath of the tragedy. What does this mean for Jews in America? Is it safe for us to attend synagogue services anymore? Is it safe for us anywhere?
Already rabbis across the country are calling for Jews everywhere to show for shabbat. This too was a theme of the memorial service I attended at the local temple on Monday night. We cannot let people like Bowers win. We cannot be driven from our faith, our heritage, and our sanctuaries.
In the aftermath of the Nazi attack in Charlottesville, this was something I found myself struggling with. The openness of their Nazism and their antisemitic message, compounded with American leftists’ solid commitment to erasing, universalizing, and downplaying it led me to a sort of self-erasure. I put away my kippah, I choose to work during shabbat, and I did my best to ignore the antisemitic baiting and ignorance of people I considered more or less comrades in a more universal struggle. Solidarity, I sold myself, required this kind of sacrifice.
In the wake of the Tree of Life massacre, I already feel and know the opposite to be true. Talking heads can debate it until climate change kills us all, but anyone who has spent any time in left-wing and right-wing activist spaces knows that the antisemitism is a terrifying source of commonality to them both. The conspiracies that informed Bowers could be comfortable in either, and indeed I have heard variations from both types of people. So what are Jews to do?
For me, the answer this time is to deepen my religiousity, to deepen my Jewishness. I feel the pull to wear kippah daily, to observe shabbat, to hang mezuzahs in the house, and to become unrepentant in my Jewishness. If they are coming to kill us, I want to die for who I am, not cowering in the illusion of neoliberal post-racialism.
There is more to it than outward expressions of Jewishness. And in the time ahead, I will write more. For now, my tears and internal screaming are finally giving way to an integration of the grief. Where first I prayed HaShem yikom damam, I can now comfortably offer prayers of zekher kadosh l'vrakhah.
May their memories be a blessing.
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org