December 8, 2019

So Was Yishai Schlissel a “Radical Judaist?” And Other Questions Following Orlando. Also, I’m Queer.

(In case I haven’t said it loud enough recently. Pride may not always equal life, but Silence (still)= Death.)

The week began with a descent from unalloyed joy to grinding horror, a rediscovery of how hearts that are broken repeatedly can still deliver blood to a body.

Shavuot was so good this year. At our little synagogue in Highland Park, we shared scripture and Gemara, music and visual art, stories and poems, re-enacting the revelation at Sinai by making Torah live. Among the amazing offerings was this meditation on light and comfort by artist Mitchell Kane (this will be important later). We learned, we sang, we ate an (un)holy amount of cheesecake.

Deep into the morning, I headed west to Bnei David-Judea in time to hear Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn’s inspiring teaching about theodicy—how to keep the faith when terrible things happen to good people.

She reminded us of the story in Talmud Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:1 of Elisha ben Abuya, the Acher, the apostate. The great rabbi, the teacher of Rabbi Meir, who one day saw a man climb a tree to break Jewish law by killing a mother bird and taking her eggs and descend the tree in safety. He then saw another man shoo away a mother bird before taking her eggs, as Torah commands, and then saw that man die after being bitten by a snake. This rabbi was so confounded by the problem of theodicy (why do the good suffer and the bad get away with it?) in what appears to be a chaotic, random world that he abandoned Judaism.

Morateinu Alyssa offered the Lurianic Kabbalist story of the sparks; of how, in order to create our finite physical world, and be in relationship with something other than God’s own infinite Self, HaShem had to withdraw a bit to make a space for the created beings which, being temporal and imperfect, have the potential to grow and change. But the vessels for God’s holiness, created to infuse the world, could not contain the Holy energy and they shattered, trapping sparks of holiness in the everyday stuff of the universe. We live in a broken world. But every time we are kind, we pray, we learn Torah or do a mitzvah, a spark of holiness is released and the world is that much more whole.

Speaking up for those of us who are neither committed Kabbalists nor apostates, I shared the viewpoint of Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th Century Jewish thinker who had lost most of his extended family in the Shoah. In his essay, Useless Suffering, Levinas writes that we are way past theodicy; that after the Shoah (or after the Armenian massacre or after Darfur, etc.), it is obscene to look to the victim’s conduct as explanation for an atrocity. To Levinas, one’s own suffering is always meaningless—it is the other person’s suffering that has meaning. That meaning is a summons to action, to offer one’s hand. In the relationship with the other person, we are led to God. We had a wonderful discussion, ending in a friendly hug between that brilliant Orthodox teacher and this Queer graduate of a transdenominational Jewish school.

I got to test my pretty theories much sooner than I expected to. When I woke up, remembering our teaching about cell phones as vehicles for art and connection (not shopping or gossip), I plugged in. And fell into wretched grief as what happened in Orlando flooded my social world.

So is the world simply chaos? Or does God live in our response to the suffering Other?

We can find answers in the immediate responses to the massacre. Hundreds of people lined up in staggering heat to donate blood in Orlando, including many Muslims who, because it is the holy month of Ramadan, could neither eat nor drink during the day. Here in Los Angeles, there were vigils in solidarity with the dead, the injured and their loved ones at Los Angeles City Hall, at the Islamic Center of Southern California, and at Beth Chayim Chadashim, an LGBT-based synagogue. Following Shavuot, in Washington D.C., an Orthodox congregation sought out a gay bar in order to share comfort and camaraderie. People of faith, along with people who hold different world views came together in expressions of outrage and love. The world is drenched in suffering, but there is more to life than that. It is not chaotic when we take care of one another.

It appears that the murderer in this case had pledged allegiance to Daesh as he committed his crimes. Previously, it seems, he had also expressed appreciation for Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that happens to be a bitter enemy of Daesh. Clearly, this man was more than a little confused.  (There are rumors that he frequented gay dating sites and may have been acting out of self-hatred.) He is now known to have been a domestic abuser. Despite that past and despite having been investigated twice by the FBI, he was able to legally own an assault rifle.

So, this mass murder was probably a consciously terrorist act. It was also a homophobic and racist act. The shooter chose Latin Night at a gay dance club. This is not the first time that queer people of color have been cut down, and when the murders were motivated by religion, it hasn’t been Islam.

Donald Trump wants our President to attribute this murder, not to racism and homophobia, but to something called “radical Islam.” Radical means thorough, extreme, through-and-through. Is Trump suggesting that mass murder represents a kind of rarified essence of Islam?

When Yishai Schlissel murdered people at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade last year, he did it in the name of Judaism. Does that make him a “radical Judaist?” Certainly Schlissel was as deranged as the Orlando killer but with a Jewish accent as it were. He could certainly cite texts and rulings that supported his view that homosexuality is an abhorrence which must be erased.

Like our neighbors at the Islamic Center, many Jews were quick to condemn murderous violence in the name of a tradition which inspires us to live as compassionately and civilly as we can. Like every speaker at the vigil at City Hall, we also must resist calls to respond to bigotry and hatred with the same.

This is really the great global struggle: that between reaction and progression, between those who want to return to an idealized past that never was and those who are willing to struggle forward, not necessarily along some clear teleological path, but step by step forward to an unimaginable future. As our people did when we turned out backs on slavery and stood at Sinai.