Unspeakable Speech: 2018

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What happened across America last week is unspeakable. But these unspeakable acts of violence have a long history in speech itself. The bombs mailed from Florida did not come out of a speechless void. Nor did Saturday’s attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation

If ever the Hebrew proverb was true that those with a pure heart and gracious speech will have the king for their friend (Book of Proverbs 22:11), it is true no longer in 2018. The massacre of Jewish worshipers on Shabbat does not come out of a vacuum. Hate speech once uttered cannot be put back. It has a murderous history we dare not forget, and casts a long dark shadow into the future we dare not abide.

Words are powerful. Speech is powerful. Silence is powerful. Acquiescence is powerful. When the words come from the President of the United States — or when they do not come, or when they come only in part — they contribute to the worst in us. They cast their shadow far into the American future. White nationalism/Christian nationalism is the forbidden fruit of the tree from which we must not eat. It is not the fruit of the Tree of Life (Genesis 3). It is the fruit of the tree of death.

As the city officials and Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh prepare for the President’s controversial visit the day they begin burying their loved ones, we offer a rabbi’s voice to help the rest of us understand.

Reb Arthur WaskowHealing for the Stricken Community,
for the Shaken Jewish People,
and for Our Deeply Wounded Country

Dear friends,

There are many disastrous levels to the murderous massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

There is the immediate personal disaster of eleven lives destroyed, others wounded, families and friends bereft, a neighborhood traumatized.  To all these, The Shalom Center as a body and I individually send blessings of swift refuah (healing) for the wounded,  deep respect and grief for the dead, and loving care for those bereaved.

There is the broader disaster of shock to the American Jewish community, until now so profoundly joyful to have found full acceptance in America these last several generations, after millennia of persecution elsewhere and elsewhen.
Some of us took from that safety acceptance in becoming affluent, even wealthy, even powerful. Some of us took from that safety acceptance in becoming social critics, progressives, even radicals.

Less comfort as critics than as powerful, of course – but comfortable that all the clauses of the First Amendment affirmed our worth as Jews, as sacred fringes on conventional assumptions, as challengers who could wrestle not only with God (as our name “Yisrael” describes us) but with the rigidified habits of ourselves and others.

And even worse, the broader disaster of facing an American government that our immigrant forebears who came here for freedom’s sake could not have fathomed:

A government honeycombed with white supremacism, moving into neofascism,  calling forth from the shadows into boastful visibility those who concoct bombs to enforce their racism, who can openly revel in their contempt for women, who can turn hatred of foreigners into willingness to rip babies from their mothers’ breasts,  who can turn their greed for hyperwealth into willingness to torch the Earth that is our common home, our only home  — and who can turn their latent anti-Semitism into mass murder.

How do we respond to these layered levels of disaster?

-Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Shalom Center, Philadelphia, PA

Following a week of unspeakable violence, Rabbi Waskow’s question addresses all of us. Today in Pittsburgh is a day to keep silence before a Word of comfort and direction deeper than our own. Tomorrow and November 6 is time for all of us to speak.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 30, 2018