In the wake of the Tree of Life attack in Pittsburgh, among the unresolved issues is one that may not seem very significant when compared to the stinging loss of 11 innocent lives, but is vexing nonetheless:
Should Jews turn the other cheek?
A few days after the attack, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, leader of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine parishioners were murdered in 2015, paid a shiva call to Pittsburgh, where he embraced Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation. Their shared grief moved us all, but at the same time it brought attention to one aspect of the two cases that wasn’t shared.
Following the Charleston attack, the victims’ families famously forgave the murderer as he stood before them in court. By contrast, as The New York Times reported, the Jews of Pittsburgh had no intentions of being so forgiving. The Times article states that Jews interviewed said they had been too busy burying the dead and trekking from shiva to shiva to devote much thought to the killer. It then adds, “But Jewish theologians also explained that their tradition, rooted more in the retributive justice of the Old Testament than the turn-the-cheek ethos of the New Testament, takes a different approach to forgiveness.”
Yes, it’s true, Judaism does take a different approach. The article goes on to explain, correctly, that the Jewish concept of teshuvah calls on the perpetrator to seek forgiveness from the victim before having any hope of absolution. Then it adds that Pittsburgh mourners “felt little instinct to forgive the person responsible for such horror.”
Clearly, there is a difference in how the victims of Pittsburgh and Charleston approached similar calamities. But whenever someone traces things back to the “retributive justice of the Old Testament God,” an enormous red flag is raised. There are many images of God depicted in the Hebrew Bible, some more vengeful and others more loving. The thunderous God of the Exodus Sinai narrative is later encountered by Elijah, in the very same place, as a “still, small voice.” And that kinder-gentler New Testament God seemed to conveniently forget to turn-the-cheek during the Crusades and Inquisition.
The notion of a perpetually vengeful Old Testament God has inspired stereotypic images of hard-hearted Jews, even though the Torah explicitly prohibits taking revenge and holding grudges.
Why does Judaism not encourage the unconditional embrace of your enemy? When you turn your cheek, you are no longer looking at your offender in the eye, face to face. True reconciliation can only occur when two human beings can truly see what is human in the other, and how each of us is created in the Divine image. But there are times when such authentic encounters simply can’t happen. The Pittsburgh perpetrator showed no signs of remorse during his appearance in court, and it is doubtful that he will when he stands trial. It would be a grave injustice to blindly forgive him.
After the Charleston massacre, I attended a prayer vigil, at which I heard a presentation by Inni Kaur, a representative of the Stamford, Conn., Sikh community, reflecting on her own faith group’s experiences.
It should be noted that the Sikh community suffered a similar massacre, at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012. Unfortunately, no religious group is immune to such attacks. The image of people at prayer or study seeing their sanctuary violated, having the pastoral serenity and love of neighbor rendered instantaneously into a garish nightmare, is one that cuts across cultures.
My Sikh friend recalled Oak Creek, and how the community rallied together and preached love over hate, and, like Charleston, even forgave the perpetrator. She said, “These communities have shown us that faith helps endure any hardship, even the most unspeakable suffering. Faith does not mean we forget pain or grief. Faith means that we live free of hate. These monumental acts of forgiveness compel each and every one of us to work towards ending the racial terror that exists in our country today; to find ways to look beyond the boundaries of race, color, ethnicity and see the Oneness in all.”
So “forgiving” enemies is not about letting them off the hook — it’s about telling them, loud and clear, that they have not succeeded in driving a wedge between groups. It’s about achieving a greater societal goal by suppressing base urges. In Charleston, Oak Creek, Orlando and now Pittsburgh, the ideology of hate was drowned in a sea of love.
In Charleston, the victims’ supreme gesture of love yielded tangible results — the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol. One hate-driven young man accomplished in one evening what Martin Luther King could not accomplish in a lifetime, at least with regard to the shunning of this symbol of hate.
One might say that for the bereaved of Charleston, forgiveness was the best revenge of all.
For the Jews of Pittsburgh, the best revenge against the particular hatred espoused by white supremacists has not been to turn the other cheek, but to build stronger bridges to other targeted communities, like African Americans and Muslims, who have shown such love in the wake of the attack.
And that love was reflected at the ballot box, where polls suggest that late deciders in the recent midterm elections swung away from the harsh nativism espoused by Republicans following the pipe bomb attacks on Democrats and the Pittsburgh pogrom. (Yes, these days pogroms no longer require angry mobs with pitchforks; now all it takes is a single crazy hater with an AR-15.)
As voters decided “enough is enough,” our newest Jewish martyrs changed America, while the bereaved turned not the other cheek, but perhaps the tide of history.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn. His upcoming book, “Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi — Wisdom for Untethered Times,” will be published in April by HCI Books.