Friday, November 9, 2018

Sermon On Pittsburgh, Universal vs Particularist

Eleven lives were extinguished violently in an incident in a Pittsburgh synagogue last week. Each of the murdered Jews represents an entire world destroyed (1). This atrocity confronts Jews everywhere with the very real and present threat of antisemitism. We are left to grapple with our emotions and thoughts arising from this heinous crime.

There were a range of reactions. There was an outpouring of Jewish solidarity and prayer events, including at my synagogue. Personally, I appreciated the condolences I received from a Coptic priest and my Australian Muslim friends, as well as the reports about Muslims having raised around $200,000 for the families of victims (2). Some on the left have refused to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of this attack. Instead, they wanted to focus the public discussion on Trump, prejudice in general and gun control. On the other hand, some have insisted that it is about none of these things. They assert that discussion should only be about antisemitism, and that any mention of broader issues is illegitimate and inappropriate.
The inclination to focus inwardly in the face of tragedy is compelling. In the words of Jeremiah, some of us want to scream, “Is there any pain like my pain?” (4). How can anyone dare bring other matters into the sacred space of our mourning?!
However, I think that it is morally imperative that we fully acknowledge the broader issues. As Hillel taught us, “If I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am only for myself, who am I?” (5). Or as Martin Niemoller pointed out, failure to stand up for others is intricately linked with finding that ‘when they come for us, there is no one left to speak up for us’.

We are duty bound to recognise that the murder in the Pittsburgh synagogue is part of a global trend of animosity against, fear and dehumanisation of those perceived as others. The expression of these sentiments ultimately has lead to violence and even murder.
When the Torah responds to murder it speaks in the voice of God. God says to the murderer, Cain: “What have you done?! The voice of the blood of your brother screams to me from the ground” (6). The intentional taking of any human life screams to the heavens, and is heard by a concerned God. When explaining the penalty for murder, God links it to the principle that humans, regardless of their ethnicity or beliefs, were made in the “image of God” (7).

As we reflect on the desecration of those made in the image of God in Pittsburgh, we dare not stop at the ethnic religious boundary. When Jeremiah talks of the Jews crying out to the stranger walking on the road, “Is there any pain like my pain?”, he is not being prescriptive, he is being descriptive. This is a natural and understandable response. But it is still not the most ethical response.

When advocates for embracing diversity promote this principle, it is important that they don’t dehumanise or demonise people who express views or fears relating to immigration or religion. Instead, they should engage with people that they are trying to persuade rather than lecture them (8). The echo chambers in which violent extremists and bigots stew are reinforced by the heavily polarised shouting matches between otherwise reasonable people in the mainstream (9). It is ok to have robust disagreements about the merits and challenges of cultural and religious diversity, provided they are done in respectful, truthful and tactful ways that help us understand one another and our experiences that inform our views.   

We must stand against hate and demonisation in all its various forms, because it is right. We don’t need an additional reason, but if we did, let us do it to honor the commitment to welcoming the stranger shown by the compassionate Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh,who were attacked for this very reason. Let us do it responsibly and effectively.

1.      Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
2. accessed 2.11.2018. Even this positive bit of information has led to a bit of controversy. Repeated social media posts about the fundraising effort, especially with a tagline of “this is Islam” was criticised by one Muslim (IA) as reinforcing a sense of two types of Muslims, the Good Muslims vs. Bad Muslims. I acknowledge the validity of this concern but I think in the right context it is useful to tell people about this welcome effort.
3.      Lamentations 1:12
4.      Ethics of the Fathers 1:14
5.      Genesis 4:10
6.      Genesis 9:6
7.      Pedersen A, Walker I, Wise M (2005), ‘Talk does not cook rice’ : Beyond anti-racism to strategies for social action, The Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.
8.      Stephens-Davidovitz, S. (2017) has some interesting data from google searches that supports this argument. See sections on the impact of Obama’s different attempts to defuse tensions. Curiosity and information method vs. lecturing about responsibility. accessed 04.11.2018