On Saturday, in a constantly-repeating story as old as the Jewish people, a Jew-hating murderer decided to slaughter as many Jews as possible. This murderer shouted the slogan of Jew-haters throughout time: “All Jews must die.”
That slogan has served to justify slaughter in the name of nationalism, in the name of communism, in the name of Christianity, in the name of Islam. Indeed, Jew-hatred is unique because Jew-hatred is infinitely chameleonic.
The Jews, however, are not.
Traditional Jewish thought suggests that every Jewish soul was present at the foot of Mount Sinai when God spoke to the nation of Israel, born and unborn. The Jews were bound in an inextricable covenant; we all consented, and we all became part of that covenant.
While the history of the Jewish people is filled with fractious division, the evidence suggests that this basic principle was fundamentally true – and history has treated the Jews as a closely-bound unit. Jewish identity wasn’t a choice. It was a reality.
Modernity has obscured this basic truth for many Jews. The enlightenment allowed Jews to believe they could exit the Jewish lineage, to abandon the faith of their fathers; freedom of choice came with freedom to exit. But the world is not that malleable. Jews, for better or worse, remain Jews.
Every Jew knows this in his or her marrow. When we meet another Jew, the first thing we do is play Jewish geography: who knows whom, who is related to whom. That’s the rich side of being part of a global tribe – everyone is one degree removed from everyone else.
We’re reminded of that in joy, and we’re reminded of that in horror.
America is the most tolerant and accepting and loving country the Jews have experienced, outside of Israel, in the long span of recorded time – but the curse of anti-Semitism never leaves the Jews. I grew up and live in Los Angeles, the second-largest Jewish community in the United States; I wear my yarmulke publicly. I have never felt unsafe. Still, nearly every Jew is one degree removed from tragedy. In 1991, a synagogue in my community was firebombed. In 1999, a white supremacist shot up a local Jewish Community Center. In 2002, a radical Muslim terrorist shot up the El-Al counter at the Los Angeles International Airport, killing a member of my local community. When I attended the Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles, our school was evacuated multiple times per year thanks to bomb threats; we were located next to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which was similarly evacuated routinely.
So why don’t Jews treat anti-Semitism in the United States as a crisis? Because Jews live with a certain background knowledge: we know how bad things can get, and therefore how good we have it. The Holocaust still exists in living memory; the genocidal screams of tyrants still resonate throughout the Middle East; Jews in Europe are still fleeing the shocking escalation of anti-Jewish hatred in countries from Sweden to France.
But even in the United States, hatred of the Jews is on the rise. That rise is indicative of a deeper problem of the Western soul. As Western civilization tears itself apart, anti-Semitism comes bursting through the seams.
That anti-Semitism can be fought. It can only be fought by choosing life.
In that Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning, the Jew-hating murderer rushed into a room in which a brit milah was taking place: a circumcision ceremony, a ceremony as old as the Jewish people, a ceremony welcoming an eight-day-old child into the community of the Jews. In other parts of the synagogue, different minyanim were reading the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on a mountain.
Why would Jews continue to inaugurate children into the most targeted community in human history? Jewish destiny may be inescapable, but why embrace that destiny? The members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were shot to death in a synagogue. So why continue to cluster in synagogues, fulfilling age-old commandments, the elderly passing down their traditions to infants?
Because, as the Tree of Life Synagogue’s name attests, the Torah – the Jewish destiny – is a “tree of life for all those who cling to it.” (Proverbs 3:18) And we are enjoined to choose life. That, after all, is the story of Abraham and Isaac: a story not of God asking Abraham to kill his son, but a story of God asking if Abraham is willing to place his son in mortal danger in service to God – and God’s grace in saving Isaac thanks to Abraham’s commitment. That is the story of the Jewish people. That is the story members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were reading as they died al kiddush Hashem, in the sanctification of God’s name.
And that is the story of our civilization. An attack on the Tree of Life is an attack on all of us – those of us who wish to imbue our own children with a sense of Godliness in a dark world, a sense of eternal value in a society eating away at itself. Inside the sanctuary, all was peaceful on the Sabbath -- until the gunshots rang out.
The only proper response is the same response Jews have given throughout time: to fight back. To stubbornly cling to that which stamps us with the image of God. To fight darkness with light, untruth with truth, and death with life.