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Evil in Sacred Spaces
by Dr. Anthony Antolini
At 9:50 A.M. on Saturday 27 October 2018, Robert Gary Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, and murdered eleven congregants. The victims had just begun the Sabbath morning service. The mayhem went on for twenty minutes with the shooter shouting, “All Jews must die!” Approximately 75 people were in the building at the time – all attending one of two Sabbath services – at New Light Congregation or Tree of Life Congregation or attending a Torah Study session in the Dor Hadash Congregation. In addition to the eleven dead, there were seven injured, including four police officers. The gunman was captured. He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital where his injuries were treated by three doctors – all of them Jewish.
News coverage of this tragedy has been extensive but most of it focused on the carnage, the outrage, the heartbreak. As time has passed there has been fascinating coverage of what was going on that Saturday morning before and after the shooter arrived. Of particular interest to me and to the choristers in Down East Singers and Bowdoin Chorus and the members of Mozart Mentors Orchestra was a set of three episodes on the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” You can find this if you type in the name of the podcast and then select the parts that deal with the massacre in Pittsburgh. These podcasts focus on how the news spread throughout the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and then around the world. At another Pittsburgh synagogue the congregants had to rely on a gentile janitor to tell them what was going on because it is the custom of some Jews not to use any mechanical equipment (including cell phones) on the Sabbath.
Why would our local choristers and orchestra members be interested in such a distressing subject? Because we have all devoted the past months to preparing performances of a brilliant 20th-century Jewish liturgical work: Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service / Avodath Hakodesh. It will be performed at the Camden Opera House on Memorial Day, Monday 27 May at 5 P.M. Tickets are available on line at downeastsingers.org or at the Grasshopper Shop in Rockland or Owl and Turtle Bookshop in Camden. The performance is dedicated not only to the memory of those who lost their lives in Pittsburgh but also to the memory of the woman who threw herself between another shooter and her rabbi in Poway, CA, the last day of Passover, Saturday morning, 27 April 2019.
Once before in writing this column I have relied on a Jewish friend of mine to help me understand things about Judaism and I turned to her again this time. Her name is Jean Guthery. She’s a physician in Denver, CO, and a member of Temple Sinai in that city. I am indebted to her for much of the detail that follows.
As word spread about the massacre in Pittsburgh, Jean, in Denver, and a Jewish colleague of mine in Portland, were frightened when their local police departments arrived at their synagogues. It is a sobering fact that Jewish congregations all across our country have had to go through training on what to do when a shooter threatens a synagogue. It is at least reassuring that local police departments are also prepared and arrive quickly to protect other congregations when an alert is broadcast.
Like the lectionaries familiar to many Christian denominations, Judaism has a parsha, which is the weekly Torah portion to be read and studied. (The Torah comprises the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). There are 54 weekly parashiyot (plural of parsha) in Judaism, the full cycle being read over the course of one Jewish year. Each Torah portion consists of two to six chapters to be read during the week, and each portion has a name that is taken from the first distinctive word in the Hebrew text for that selection. The readings follow an annual cycle beginning and ending on the Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing with the Torah.” These readings are observed by Jewish communities all over the world.
The parsha for the week ending on the Sabbath, Saturday 27 October 2018 was Vayeira, meaning “And He appeared.” (Genesis 18: 1- 22: 4). This is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Most of us associate it with lust and rape, but the point of the story is that the inhabitants of these two cities were treating immigrants and the poor with depravity. Later in the Bible, Ezekiel says, “…only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance. She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before me. (Ezekiel 16: 49-50).
This section of Genesis 18 is often described as “Abraham’s Argument with God.” Abraham knew the residents of these cities were corrupt and without redeeming character. In addition to their oppression of the poor and needy, they tried to harm Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who lived there with his family. God noted the sins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which provoked His wrath, and He decided to destroy them. Before doing so, God invites Abraham into a dialog. God asks Himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” (Genesis 18: 17, 19).
A fascinating aspect of the Hebrew Bible is that people argue with God when they feel He is acting unjustly. As Elie Wiesel said, “A Jew can be Jewish with God or against God, but not without God.” So Abraham, the first Jew, is the first to argue with God. One might expect a pious person to merely accept God’s decision and remain silent. One might expect that Abraham would limit his plea to “family,” wishing to spare nephew Lot and Lot’s family. But Abraham reaction is immediate. He confronts God: “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent people within the city, will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Shall not the Judge of all the earth act with justice?” (Genesis 18: 23-25).
God Himself concedes the validity of Abraham’s challenge and responds, “If I find within Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham, the persistent negotiator, then asks God, “What if there be fifty less five?” God concedes the argument, which further emboldens Abraham to request that Sodom be spared for the sake of forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally even ten innocent people.
In the Jewish interpretation of this story Abraham is not negotiating to save the innocent, but rather the guilty. If Abraham’s purpose were to save only the innocent he would have asked God to get them out of town before the cities were destroyed. Abraham was aware that God had chosen him to teach certain truths to the world. The point is that while many people often do not act justly, they might be influenced to change their behavior. As long as even a few good people reside in a place, there is hope that these people can influence and transform the evil ones.
What has this to do with what happened that Saturday morning in Pittsburgh? It is this: The shooter had earlier posted anti-Semitic comments against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in which Dor Hadash and Tree of Life were participating congregations. He wrote, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” This thinking led to the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in US history. (Washington Post, Associated Press).
Exactly six months later, the last day of Passover, on 27 April at Congregation Chabad in Poway, CA, (a suburb of San Diego), a seventeen-year-old boy entered the synagogue shouting anti-Semitic slogans inspired by Dark Channel, a hate-filled web site that is a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. As he took aim at Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, a congregant named Lori Gilbert Kaye put herself between the shooter and the rabbi, losing her life. The rabbi then tried to rush to an adjoining room to get the children out of the building before the shooter could get to them. By some miracle, the shooter’s gun jammed before he could kill the children and two members of the congregation rushed at him and prevented further bloodshed. The shooter was captured. Rabbi Goldstein lost his left index finger in the mayhem.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times the following Tuesday, he describes how he used to sing a song to his children that his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany, had sung to him when he was a child. The song is called “Hashem is there,” using a Hebrew term for God. He used to sing it pointing with his finger up and down and all around to teach children that God is everywhere. “That finger to point out God’s omnipresence was taken from me, but I continue to sing the song,” he wrote in the New York Times.
We add our voices to the singing in our Memorial Day Concert to honor those who have lost their lives to terrorism in sacred spaces whether they be synagogues, churches or mosques. In Bloch’s Sacred Service, in the final movement, a “minister” reads a prayer in English while the orchestra plays quietly in the background. The prayer includes these words: “…May the day come when all people shall invoke Thy Name, when corruption and evil shall give way to purity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye. O may all created in Thy image recognize that they are brethren, so that, one in spirit and fellowship, they may be forever united, forever united before Thee.”
We believe, with Rabbi Goldstein, that we cannot give in to hatred or to fear. We must keep singing fearlessly and pray that, as the prayer concludes, “Then shall Thy kingdom be established on earth and the word of Thy ancient Seer be fulfilled.” Amen.