Rabbi Seth D Gordon: A response to Pittsburgh

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation of Creve Coeur.

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

As a Jew and as an American, I am saddened and angry that 11 people attending Shabbat services at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh were murdered.  The loss is incalculable, as is the fear.  The murderer also injured others, including several police officers who courageously risked their lives to protect others.  Such are the depths of evil that also spur heroism.  The assault has been described, quantitatively, as the worst violent anti-Semitic act in America.  

I happened to speak about anti-Semitism this Rosh ha-Shanah, noteworthy only because I rarely do so, apart from anti-Israel anti-Semitism.  I cited ADL data showing increases of anti-Semitic incidents here and in Europe, and referenced England and Jeremy Corbyn. My message also called attention to the silence of people who intensely protest other bigotry, but who explicitly minimize or dismiss anti-Semitism.  They claim that bigotry only applies to the perceived powerless and not to the perceived powerful, i.e., Jews.

The reactions to the Pittsburgh massacre have been varied.  Articles which I have forwarded to members of my congregation include those who have lost faith in America.  Other views pin the blame for this act on the social/political climate and some on President Trump.

Our political discourse is toxic, a message I have repeated in Rosh ha-Shanah remarks for years.  Many are culpable, in both explicit and subtle ways, politicians as well as the media. President Trump has exacerbated that toxic culture.  He has, too often, resorted to name calling, has too often used inflammatory words, has celebrated physical assault, and has understated and equivocated when he should have stood against inflammatory rhetoric and violent action.  

The President, in our system, has two roles that most European governments, and Israel, separate.  The President is the head of the government, has the authority to approve or veto most legislation and is charged to carry out legislation and policies through administrative agencies.  The is also the chief representative of the values, the attitudes, the tone of the society.  We can debate his administration’s policies, but I, like many Americans find President Trump severely wanting in representing the values of the people, and thought that of him even during his candidacy, and prior to that as a businessman.  

But he is not alone.  Politicians who call opponents (or the media) “enemies” rather than “adversaries,” who encourage protesters to invade private space, and who remain silent when protesters disrupt and shout down speech they do not agree with, also bear great responsibility.  A quality leader must muster the courage to champion rational dialogue and debate, the hallmark of Torah teaching, of western philosophy, and the best of American democracy.   

The media, too, bears responsibility.  They too often magnify tension, too often use inflammatory militant language when tempered words would better serve us (“war” and “attacked” as opposed to “difference” or “disagreement”) and devote themselves to political agendas rather than promote understanding.  Because they significantly influence our behavior, the media must check itself.  While it too has a vital role to hold government officials accountable, and to tell the stories of the voiceless, to the extent that they inflame in order to attract viewers and readers, to earn the profits to sustain its business, for journalists to advance their careers, and rationalize their role in our toxic discourse, they, too, corrupt the society.  

Politicians and the media will continue to inflame so as long as it serves their purpose, as long as it works.  This means that ultimately the power is with the people.  If candidates and media who inflame are rejected, their approach will change; they won’t be elected and they won’t garner readers and viewers.  This, for better or worse, up to us.  What will we do?

Having said all of this, although there has been a clear cultural shift over the past generations (aided by technology) towards a cruder, more verbally violent society, anti-Semites and other bigots act because they hate, and are nurtured, influenced, and supported by a small minority of those who share their views, unrelated to the general political climate.   

Those who link this mass murder to politicians need to connect the two explicitly, lest they do what bigots do — assert vague linkage to support their biases.  Vague linkage is not only unconvincing, but it leads to heated reactions, not enlightened thinking. As much as I condemn inflammatory language in and of itself as a moral wrong, and for its potential to inspire violence, I do not see, in the Pittsburgh massacre, the linkage to the sources I identified.  

Assigning blame to them for this incident, I believe, will exacerbate our tensions.  Each side will see in it a political attack, and it will breed more inflamed emotion.  Indeed, we will change for the better when Conservatives condemn Conservatives, Liberals condemn Liberals, and when good people reject and penalize inflammatory language.   After all, the Torah way emphasizes introspection and minimizes blame.   

Finally, despite this worst act of violence against Jews in this country, I do not feel unsafe as a Jew in America.  Yes, anti-Semitic incidents have risen, but the overwhelming number of Americans, in my experience, are fully accepting of Jews and Jewish life.  Indeed, support has come openly from various faith communities and ethnic and racial groups.  

There is neither, in my experience, a top-down US governmental effort against Jews, from either major political party, nor bottom-up as a populist movement.  True, there are organized anti-Semites, there is immoral and amoral silence, but America is still safe for Jews and Jewish life.  Compare other countries’ experiences of violent bigotry.  America is still a good country, but one that has its problems and challenges, serious ones.  

I find the calls for action to be understandable, but unclear.  Evil exists and it is part of a free society. Neither secular nor religious thinking provides completely satisfactory answers and solutions.  But, nevertheless, we can respond. The murderer used, as a pretext, HIAS support to settle immigrants; we can make his act counterproductive by increasing our support for immigrants through HIAS. He murdered on Shabbat; we can render him impotent by increasing our Shabbat attendance.  We will not be afraid.  He murdered Jews; we can be stronger as Jews toward our fellow Jews and redouble our efforts in Jewish life.  He assaulted all Americans and we can deepen our commitment to each other; we can disagree without disrespecting, without threatening. We can remind ourselves that all human beings are made in God’s image.  

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation of Creve Coeur.