We all have hot buttons: words, phrases, images that evoke passionate visceral responses in our guts. A person whose beloved pet was hit by a car will feel a tightening and churning in their gut at the sight of any animal's body at the side of a road. A family that has lost their home in a fire will experience a physical reaction to the sound of sirens on a fire engine. An adult who was beaten as a child will involuntarily tighten up all over if they are near a mother hauling a child forcibly by the arm and screaming. For all that we may intellectually understand, and have moved past, events like these in our lives, we have no control when our memories rule our bodies for a split second and we're back at a worst moment. These are our individual hot button issues.
We have collective hot button issues as well: events and phrases and words and images that are indelibly written into our very beings. You'd think that the distance of time or geography would lessen the power of these memories, but when we identify fully with the collective that has weathered the trauma, the gut reaction to reminders of that trauma remains. At the moment when we perceive those evocative images or sounds we find out how deeply our identification with our group (whatever group that might be) really goes. You are likely to witness a micro-expression of pain or anger on the face of a black friend hearing the "N" word, of a gay friend seeing a photograph of Tyler Clementi*, or a Haitian friend hearing a report of an earthquake....and on the face of an American Jew reading that Jews in the Ukraine are going to have to register, list their assets and pay a fine.
A few members of my congregation e-mailed links to news articles about the incident of the flyers being handed out to Jews leaving synagogue on the eve of Passover in the Ukraine. I admit, my stomach wrenched at those very evocative phrases: registering, bring your passport and your id card, list your assets . . . . I read and re-read. Of course my mind's eye delivered a slideshow of images from Nazi Europe, the Holocaust, the concentration camps . . . all in seconds before I had a chance to think. After a few deep breathes and reading a few articles, it became clear that no one is rounding up Jews in the Ukraine this week. It seems doubtful whether there was ever a serious intention to round up Jews in the Ukraine at all, but rather a heavy-handed attempt to influence the internal struggles over the fate of Donetsk.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Geneva after conducting talks with leaders from the Ukraine on the lowering of tensions there, said exactly what needed to be said: "In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. "
Which doesn't mean, of course, that the situation should not be watched, or that anti-Semitism in Europe doesn't exist. But it does mean that the Jews of the Ukraine in 2014 are not in the same danger as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents during World War II. For lots of reasons.
All this during the same week we are settling our stomachs over the murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas. By a person with a decades-long record of both racism and anti-Semitism. The horrible irony of the murders committed by this man is that two of the people he murdered were members of a United Methodist Church and one was the member of a Catholic church.
Anti-Semitism is most certainly a hot button: our guts, our hearts, our memories all kick into action immediately when we hear of violence or threat or attacks on Jews. And there is good reason for our visceral reactions; they don't come from nowhere.
On the other hand, as in the cases of both anti-Semitic episodes this week, things are not always what they seem in the moment and we need to step back and apply perspective and intelligence to our reactions. And be smart and aware. And not over-react. Not easy, but very important.
*Tyler Clementi was the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 when his roommate posted videos of Tyler in acts of sex with a male partner.
There are times when the universe seems to conspire to challenge us: The week people around the world are mourning the quintessential man of integrity, peace, mature judgement and courage, Nelson Mandela, is the week millions of people around the United States are marking the 1st anniversary of the horrific Newtown school massacre.
As the senseless deaths of twenty six-year olds and their teachers sank in, we sensed that there might be a glimmer of hope. Cynically, we noted that at least twenty children of color from disadvantaged homes were victims of gun violence every year in the United States and those "incidents" made barely a ripple on the national stage . . . perhaps the deaths of these twenty white children from privileged Connecticut would shake our nation out of our complacency and spur some serious gun control legislation and enforcement.
In truth, it's a mixed bag: In a number of states, proactive and balanced gun legislation was passed (including in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and California). According to the New York Times (December 10, 2013), 109 new state gun bills became law in the year since the Newtown shootings. 39 of these new bills tighten gun restrictions. 70 of these new bills loosen gun restrictions. 14 of the 39 new bills relate to gun possession and mental health issues (including the creation of a task force here in Rhode Island mandated to review existing laws related to firearms and behavioral issues). 10 of the 39 new laws relate to strengthening or establishing background checks for the purchase of firearms. In Rhode Island, a bill became law in July making it illegal to receive, transport or possess any firearm whose identification has been altered.
The fact that more bills loosened gun restrictions than tightened them is an indication that we as a nation are struggling mightily with this issue. We need to conduct respectful and focussed and informed conversations about the place of firearms in our society.
We do not need fear tactics. We do not need polarizing rhetoric.
And yet, guns and public safety researcher, Timothy Johnson of MediaMatters.org reported today: As the one-year anniversary of the December 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent is blaming "the self-inflicted scourge of political correctness" for the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut.
In his regular column for conspiracy website WND, Nugent wrote on December 11 that unless America followed a series of his policy recommendations -- including arming teachers, eliminating "gun-free zones," and getting "deranged people off the streets" -- "then those precious little 20 children and their six teachers and faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary died for nothing."
In the week we are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela--a man who never let himself be swayed by the assumptions and biases of others-- it is anathema to evoke the Holocaust as a support for the loosening of gun control. In a January 24, 2013 press release, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reported:
As a self-determining people with our own sovereign country, language, cultural and religious heritage and economic resources, we can take part in any policy or cultural debate without "playing the Holocaust card." We don't need anyone's pity and it is not becoming to assume a pathetic posture.
We also acknowledge that the Jewish people do not hold exclusive rights as victims of Nazi genocide: there is just as solid documentation that the lives of gypsies, homosexuals, those suffering mental illness and political dissidents were just as callously discarded as were the lives of 6 million Jews.
Nonetheless, no one has the right to distort these truths to make political hay. Do you want to defend the status quo in gun possession? Speak with integrity and make your case, don't throw around emotional bombs like "Holocaust" and "Nazi." Do you have confidence that loosening gun restrictions is the responsible next step in our country's civic life? Speak with integrity and make your case with logic, accuracy and integrity: do not take the names and lives of the Newtown victims in vain.
Over twelve years after our American complacency was shattered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we are still finding our way through a forest of security and privacy issues. As we take in the revelations about the Obama administration's collection of data on phone calls made, these issues are raised afresh. President Obama and our national security leadership have denied absolutely that calls were listened to without appropriate judiciary warrants. We are listening, too, and are probably inclined to believe or doubt those denials based on our own political leanings and proclivities . . . for none of us in the general public really have any way of knowing how this data has been processed.
What sort of guidance does Judaism provide in this existential conflict of interest between protecting innocent populations and protecting the privacy and anonymity of citizens of a democracy?
Jonathan Stein, a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, and an attorney, writes in an article on Judaism and Privacy (www.myjewishlearing.com): "However, there is evidence from [classic Jewish] sources that privacy is not in fact a value in and of itself, but an instrument for achieving social harmony and religious welfare. Thus, the general duty of confidentiality gives way when it clashes with issues of communal import. Court witnesses may not claim a confidentiality privilege to avoid testifying. Concerns of justice override any privacy interest. This is in contrast to American law, where doctors, lawyers, ministers, and spouses can often avoid testifying about information they received in confidence."
In the United States, we have become socialized to assume a constitutional "right to privacy" of which we are more protective than a mother bear with her cubs. Whether there actually exists such a constitutional right is a matter of debate, in fact. In Judaism, however, there is no debate. An individual's "personal space" must give way when matters concerning the well-being of innocents in the community are in question.
In an article published in 2002 (Living Words IV: A Spiritual Source Book for an Age of Terror), Alan Dershowitz recounts the changes of heart he underwent after 9/11 regarding the issue of "roving warrants" (which attach to an individual instead of a particular phone or phone number) and national identity cards. He wrote: "Terrorists should never make us give up our liberties or change our values. But experiences of all kinds--whether they are natural disasters or the horrors wrought by criminals--inevitably provoke thoughtful people into rethinking attitudes and values. This process is a healthy one. It is part of what Socrates called "the examined life."
In Israel, the country that is in constant arbitration between protecting the privacy of individuals in a democracy established with protections for free speech and human rights and protecting a population under almost constant threat of military and/or terrorist attack, the public debate sounds similar to ours, but the background premises are rather different. In Israel, it is the most routine of procedures to have one's bag opened and examined, go through metal detectors, etc., when entering a movie theater or a shopping mall or a coffee shop. To object on the grounds of invasion of privacy would be absurd in a setting where such a lapse might provide the opening for a pizza parlor to be blown to bits.
In Israel, we see, on the ground, the principle Dr. Stein described in theory: in Judaism, privacy is not a value in an of itself . . . it is a luxury we enjoy when circumstances permit.
Many of us enjoy many luxuries here in the United States. Whether we must eschew this particular one in order to maintain public safety or not is a matter of public, crucial public, debate. But our tradition encourages us to keep an open mind and look at the issue not only as citizens of a democracy, but as Jews informed by our tradition as well.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
David Avram Smoller, ז"ל*
Every chance I get, I tell people that it is a privilege to be a rabbi. Most treasured among the opportunities I treasure in my rabbinate are the people who let me into their lives. The more experience I accrue as a rabbi, the more I come to appreciate what I can learn from my "chavrei kehillah" -- the members of my congregation.
A young friend recently told me about an intriguing international program called "The Human Library," in which a group of people with varying life experiences each agree to tell their life story for about fifteen minutes to any individual who is interested. The visitor reads a synopsis of the person's life story on a card and decides to "check out" the human book. They have a fifteen minute slot for the "human book" to tell her or his story and then the "library patron" returns the "human book" and can check out another if he or she finds another potentially interesting story.
Over the course of time, I've acquired a few people who i've added to my permanent "human library." People who have taught me, shared with me, opened vistas for me.
David Smoller was one of those.
If you were to assess the man in the photograph above, you'd probably guess that this was a happy man, a friendly man, a guy, perhaps, with a good sense of humor. You'd be right. What you would not guess from this great photograph of David at a Torat Yisrael end-of-summer barbecue a few years ago, is that David faced his own mortality with courage and determination and optimism and courage and sheer will since he was a teenager.
David would tell me: "There's no other way to do it." David would power through any and all onslaughts to his physical well-being with one single goal: to get back to his real life of loving and caring for and supporting Susan and Michelle. "Life is good." David would say.
Other people in David's circumstances would (and do) complain, whine, suffer under a burden of fear, lash out in anger and frustration, shrivel in helplessness.
David swaggered through every challenge with a smile on his face, putting his faith in God, counting the blessings in his life, embracing every opportunity for friendship, mentschlichkeit, joy, love, generosity and a good laugh.
I sat at his feet; a neophyte in the art of living and loving life.
We were asked to pause for a few moments this morning to remember, or pray for, the 26 precious souls lost in last week's horrific shooting. I turned on the television and listened to the bells of the Newtown church tolling slowly, majestically, 26 times.
How indescribably, inexplicably tragic.
For the families, for the communities of Newtown, the mourning, the pain--once the shock wears off-- are beyond imagining. They fell victim to a severely mentally ill young man who had access to a powerfully dangerous weapon.
Humans have vivid imaginations and like it or not we project ourselves into situations like this and can't help but touch the edges of the emotions felt by those truly affected.
We are vulnerable at times like this and I find the rhetoric emanating from news media and a wide range of organizations to be disturbing.
This is not a "time of crisis." No movement or trend was highlighted by the Newtown shooting. Yes, some weak patches in the fabric of our society were exposed, but no one outside of Sandy Hook came under a direct, or even indirect, threat when that young man shot his way into that school. It is terribly disturbing that a school following all reasonable security precautions (as is the case with Sandy Hook School) cannot anticipate and defend themselves against an attack like this. Therein, of course, lies our terror.
This may be a moment for some facts. Last Friday, elementary school children in about 67,000 public elementary schools around the United States and perhaps another 25,000 or so private elementary schools around the United States all got up, ate breakfast (I wish....), went to school and got home safely. There was a heart-stopping tragedy in one school.
It's a little harder to figure out how many legally-owned firearms there are in the United States. A little Googling yielded these two (unverified) statements:
The Small Arms Survey in 2007 by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva estimated 270 million firearms in the US.
There have been 156,577,620 gun registry applications submitted to the National Firearms Administration (NFA) from Nov 1998 to Nov 2012.
So, last Friday, approximately 200 million legally-owned weapons were not used to kill 26 innocent and defenseless people.
Concerns about responsibility and treatment of the mentally ill in our country are also raised in the context of the Sandy Hook shootings. It is even harder to come up with a statistic for the number of "mentally ill" in the United States because the term "mental illness" is comprised of a wide range of diagnoses while a legally owned weapon is a legally owned weapon. It is clear, though, that the percentage of the mentally ill who are prone to violence (against others, not themselves) is minuscule. So, last Friday, many, many thousands of people suffering from significant mental disease did not harm to others or to themselves last Friday morning.
So where does this leave us? I hope none of us here, in Rhode Island, are experiencing a sense of immediate personal threat to ourselves or our families. If you feel that your level of anxiety or that or your children is more intense, more sustained than an object review of the facts might suggest, I encourage you to reach out for help. For those not affiliated with Torat Yisrael, you will find, I hope, many resources readily at hand through school systems and faith community structures, Jewish Family Services organizations and local mental health facilities. For our TY family, I am always available to you (firstname.lastname@example.org) as is our Kesher social worker, Andrea Epstein (email@example.com).
Our tradition teaches us that God is our most consistent, eternal source of strength and perspective at times like this. I offer you two resources for prayer and contemplation: Psalm 121 and a prayer I composed especially with families with children in mind.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.