By Yochanan Gordon
The unfortunate events that unfolded in Pittsburgh on Shabbos at the Tree of Life synagogue have been addressed by many people from divergent angles. There is the topic of antisemitism, with reports that the killer, Robert Bowers, yelled “All Jews Must Die!” while perpetrating this atrocious barbarity.
There is the subject of mental health, with some outlets claiming there was more instability at play here, as has been an underlying current in many acts of this nature. And then there is the subject of security in places of worship and public areas, which doesn’t have to do with the act and its perpetrator per se, but arguably could have prevented it from occurring or at least would have limited the number of casualties — as the president himself commented.
However, there is another aspect to this tragedy that hasn’t been addressed but is certainly on the minds of many — the proverbial elephant in the room — reconciling our human empathy with the victims of this attack and the fact that it occurred during the bris of a homosexual couple’s child.
Before anything else, it has to be said that measuring our response and human empathy for the people who lost loved ones in this massacre by their religious affiliation or sexual orientation is despicable. If we can’t bring ourselves to grieve with those afflicted and commiserate with the people of Pittsburgh in their time of great vulnerability, it is a deficiency in basic humanity.
My attention was drawn to a WhatsApp video in which a dean and rabbi with institutions in Great Neck, Monsey, and Eretz Yisrael delivered what he termed the State of the Union speech of his institutions. In it, the rabbi does what many before him have arrogantly done in similar situations: Represent G-d’s feelings on this situation. He decried the sexual orientation of the couple, more or less stating that he was not sorry about what happened, and that the victims who were there celebrating this baby-naming tacitly approved of wrongdoing and therefore deserved to die.
But first, some context to the said speech. Great Neck, like many Jewish communities worldwide, had organized a community-wide unity event cosponsored by 18 Orthodox shuls to daven for the families of the victims as an appropriate response to the hateful murder. It has been repeatedly said that the only response to the divisiveness and darkness of antisemitism is to add acts of unconditional love and kindness. The rabbi was asked by some of his students whether they should participate, and in short, his answer was that doing so would make them complicit in the sin he said was the cause of the tragic massacre in the first place.
It should be noted here that I have been told by people familiar with his shul that there has been a sign outside of his mikveh discouraging any man who doesn’t wear a yarmulke or who goes to a movie theater. In the words of the person with whom I was speaking, the people going to the movies should perhaps be more encouraged to use the mikveh, but such is the irony of this sort of twisted zealousness.
Presumably, the rabbi and his ilk think they are in fulfillment of the mitzvah of v’halachtah b’drachav and u’bo sidbak, which says that we need to walk in the path of G-d and, in a sense, mimic His ways. The issue with this justification is that the Gemara and Midrashim delineate precisely how we are meant to fulfill this commandment. What are the examples given? Just as G-d is merciful, we should be merciful. Just as G-d is compassionate, so we shall be. Just as G-d visits the sick, we shall visit the sick. Just as G-d buries the dead, we, too, should bury the dead. Isn’t it interesting that the Gemara highlights a number of examples and never once urges us to fight G-d’s wars and be vengeful, spiteful, and divisive?
While the rabbi lectures about the ills of homosexuality and the Torah’s intolerance for that sort of behavior, he conveniently forgets G-d’s equal, if not greater, intolerance for arrogance, about which the Gemara states: “he (the arrogant) and I cannot coexist.” Contrast that with the words regarding illicit sexual conduct, of which it says: “And I will retreat from behind you,” which, as severe as that seems, pales in comparison to the arrogant, amongst whom G-d cannot even dwell.
It is not the time or place to philosophize about lifestyle choices and certainly not to act arrogantly, like G-d’s “prophet,” lecturing us regarding why this tragedy came to pass.
When G-d reveals himself to Moshe for the first time at the burning bush, He forewarns him, “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you tread is holy ground.” Reb Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, interpreted this to mean: If you want to be a Jewish leader you need to sympathize with the people. You need to be on equal footing and relatable. When Jews are suffering, it’s not your job to tell them why they are suffering; rather, it is your job to be there for them in their time of need. “Remove your shoes from your feet” means to give a hug, tell them you have no idea why this is happening, and assure them that they are not alone in their suffering.
Earlier in the week, Dr. Jeffery Cohen, the president of Allegheny Hospital, who encountered Bowers after he was admitted to the hospital following his shootout with police, appeared on Fox News speaking about his brief encounter with the murderer. He highlighted the irony of Bowers’s antisemitic epithets, wishing death upon all Jews and just minutes later being treated by a team of Jewish doctors and nurses. And then he added, “Our staff put everything aside and just dealt with the medical situation in front of them. We don’t judge. It’s our job to heal. We don’t ask if you have insurance or you don’t have insurance. We just tend as best we can to the situation at hand.”
Similarly, it’s not our place to judge anyone. We can’t judge the parents of the child, and certainly not the people who were participating in this minyan. To assign culpability to them as if they were complicit in any wrongdoing is as preposterous a narrative as blaming this on the president, of whom Mr. Bowers was clearly not a supporter.
We need to rid ourselves of this primitive thinking, stop hating, and start loving, because if you’re looking to make a positive impact in the world, that is the only way to do it. Robert Bowers, like our enemies throughout the ages, clearly didn’t distinguish in his Jewish hatred. We need to be just as indiscriminate in our love for Jews while we pray for the afflicted, for G-d to watch over us wherever we may be, and for G-d to allow us to serve Him and glorify His name in the world with peace of mind, happiness, and abundant blessing — with the ultimate blessing of the coming of Mashiach and the end to all death, bloodshed, and Jewish tears and suffering