Pittsburgh and Kristallnacht: The best ways for Jews to respond to tragedy

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Toldot (Genesis 25:19−28:9)

As you read this d’var Torah, I hope it meets you in a resilient place. I hope last Shabbat was peaceful and the ensuing week productive, with, for those eligible, your rightful visit to the ballot box. And, I pray this coming Shabbat brings even greater healing and purpose. Like you, I am reeling from the bitter and murderous loss of fellow Jews at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation nearly two Shabbatot ago. And, I, like you, am leery of the rising tide of anti-Semitism, which felt like a tidal wave in Pittsburgh. But,  I also trust that you, like me, are determined to make matter this unspeakable loss of life, this most precious life cut short by a heinous act of xenophobia and gun violence. But big questions remain. How do we carry on? How do we make life and loss matter at a time like this? How do we face our fears?

I am reminded of a news story I once heard about a young woman named Dalia, a 25-year old Israeli who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist at the very same junction where she had been attacked some years ago–also by a terrorist. Who could imagine such an outcome?  In her hesped (eulogy), Dalia’s grieving sister Michal asked: “How could you stand at the same junction where you were stabbed and to do so with such inner strength?” Michal recalled. “Your answer, [Dalia], empowered me. You said, ‘Do you think I would let them defeat me?’” Dalia lived with courageous, unflinching resolve.

The essence of Dalia’s steadfastness is thought to reflect the wisdom of parashat Toledot, our Torah portion for this week.  Throughout this section of Torah (Gen. 26:15-22), we learn that our patriarch Isaac and his community  encounter constant struggle as they dig wells for water, essential for their survival in Israel. The Philistines, their hostile neighbors, destroy each and every well, forcing Isaac’s people to relocate time after time. Eventually, the Philistines desist from their vexing behavior and refrain from destroying Isaac’s new wells in Rehovot. (Gen. 26:22)

Offering interpretation of this Torah, the rabbis of the Israeli Defense Force had this to say: “The shepherds of Isaac could have lost patience, abandoned hope, and ceased digging more wells, when they knew that they will be ruined by the Philistines. Yet, the knowledge that their mission was just, infused them with the responsibility to continue their mission to acquire the water necessary for their survival in the Land of Israel. Their uncompromising stance forced the Philistines to understand that ongoing harassment would fail to bear fruit, and in the end, they completely halted their malicious activities.”

I would agree with the rabbis, but to a point. Establishing a Jewish homeland, both ancient and modern, has required patient and faithful resilience, an enduring commitment to survival. But the hope called for here requires more than the rabbis let on–an even higher moral gear, one that demands far more of us. And,  I am sure these IDF rabbis–of all rabbis–would agree. The patient and rugged resolve that Dalia must have possessed goes well beyond that needed to cope with the kind of malice intended simply to wreck hard-dug wells. That sort of  steady, faithful resilience is meaningful but seems much less significant than the emotional grit that has helped us throughout history to manage the pain of our unique sacrifice–one that has ultimately placed, and continues to place us in terror’s way, and war’s, too. Dalia possessed that grit. In their dying, the eleven at Tree of Life came to possess that grit.  If we could only ask them about their sacrifice…if we could only thank them.

How many Jews must die because of anti-Semitic animus? How many people will be sacrificed on the altar of hatred because they are born Jewish or deserve a Jewish homeland, or because they choose Judaism, or because they are different in their own particular way? How shall we as a Jewish people persevere? How shall we cross life’s narrow bridge, not immobilized by anxiety?

One might argue I am overstating the threat to our Jewish well-being here in America. For example, during his visit to the US last week, Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs said boldly: “This is not in any sense Germany of the ’30s, it doesn’t resemble that in any possible way.” But, I am thinking: “Wow! This is what an aspiring Israeli prime minister has to say to American Jews suffering through their greatest collective anti-Semitic tragedy ever perpetrated on their own soil? Has he not paid attention to the overflowing nativist, white nationalist rhetoric throughout the land of his nation’s greatest ally? Is he so partisan, he cannot hear the violent echoes of Kristallnacht 80 years later?”

This Shabbat–so soon after the Tree of Life massacre–coincides with the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. As many of you may know, on the night of November 9, 1938, the Germans unleashed a terrible pogrom which burned synagogues, wrecked homes, ransacked stores and, and murdered innocents.  Glass smashed everywhere. Jewish lives turned upside down.  Jewish souls devastated.  The wanton violence and destruction extended into the wee hours of the morning of November 10th, a searing display of human hatred.

On Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018, nearly eight decades later amidst the din of anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, xenophobic tropes, if not generated than tolerated at the highest levels of American leadership, the legacy of Kristallnacht crashed down upon us–this time in the form of a hateful gunman and his AR-15, a weapon of mass destruction. “Never again” never really seems to mean never again. Not yet.

The Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles offers a wise and worrisome context for our consideration:

“There are important lessons to be drawn from Kristallnacht, for it served as a bridge experience for both Jews and Nazis. For the Jews, there was the terrifying realization that political anti-Semitism can lead to violence, even in Western Civilization. It also demonstrated that apathy can still pervade the world when the lives of Jews or other minorities are threatened. For the Nazis, Kristallnacht taught that while the world might condemn their pogroms, it would not actively oppose them. World opinion, however, taught the Nazis the value of secrecy in the perpetration of future actions against Jews. Added to the complaints of Germans offended by the random violence of Kristallnacht, the stage was set for the “Final Solution”–the organized, bureaucratically efficient genocide of 6,000,000 [Jewish] men, women, and children, [and approximately ten million human beings altogether]. In retrospect, Kristallnacht was more than the shattering of windows and illusions. It portended the physical destruction of European Jewry. As such, this commemoration must be observed both as a memorial and as a warning.”

So then, in this spirit of memory and warning, our big questions bear repeating. How do we carry on? How do we make life and loss matter at a time like this? How do we face our fears? How many Jews must die because of anti-Semitic animus? How many people will be sacrificed on the altar of hatred because they are born Jewish or deserve a Jewish homeland, or because they choose Judaism, or because they are different in their own particular way? How shall we as a Jewish people persevere? How shall we cross life’s narrow bridge, not immobilized by anxiety?

The answers seem simple but complex, complicated but obvious. But let’s begin with the 614th commandment, coined by the great Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, who was arrested by the Nazis on Kristallnacht and survived Sachsenhausen: “We must not give Hitler any posthumous victories.” That means, as a Jewish people, we must…

  • Work to protect and defend and sustain Israel;
  • Demand Israel protects and defends and sustains all Jews throughout the world;
  • Stand up against hatred, anti-Semitism, and genocide;
  • Call out nativist, white nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric;
  • Never forget the stories of survivors, embracing their legacies and infusing them into our communal life, so that we strengthen our commitment to the Jewish values they held so dearly and for which they suffered for which too many of their loved ones died

Whether it’s about victims of Kristallnacht and the Shoah, or terror in Israel, or the Tree of Life slayings, or any other moral catastrophe past, present, and future, we shall not allow them to have suffered or died in vain. And, we shall not let the haters defeat us.

G-d give us courage and unflinching resolve to affirm life, make loss matter, protect the innocent, and make the world more whole.

And, in this approaching season of thanksgiving, let us be grateful for the opportunity to rededicate ourselves as Jewish-Americans to our highest values: freedom, justice, compassion and peace in a land that still champions diversity and celebrates open-mindedness.

Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).

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