A RELIGIOUS RESPONSE TO THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBING

by Rabbi David Kudan

God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as an Olah, a burnt offering, on one of the mountains which I will point out to you.” [Gen 22:1]  Abraham dutifully saddles his donkey, and with his son Isaac and the two serving lads embark on the journey.  Although we read this every year, on Rosh HaShana morning, perhaps you have not noticed that there is a mysterious gap in the narrative, an ellipsis, a chasm of time and of moral confusion that the Torah leaves open to interpretation and debate.  It is very strange that when the narrative picks up again, three days have gone by!  “Va-yisa Avrahahm et eiynav va-yar et ha-makom meyrachok!”  [22:4]  Normally, we translate, “On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar.”  What follows is the riveting tale of how Abraham, believing it to be God’s will, prepares to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.  Only at the last minute God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand, and to stop the sacrifice, and a ram is provided instead.  Abraham’s unwavering faith and devotion to God are confirmed for all time.

Yet we wonder still, did Abraham really need to put himself and Isaac through this terrible ideal?  Was this really what God wanted?  Perhaps those three missing days provide a clue to what happened – in Abraham’s mind, and his understanding of what God wanted of him.  To recover something of those lost days, we follow an alternate another line of interpretation, a way of reading this text that might sound presumptuous, even disrespectful, were it not for the existence of a longstanding tradition.  According to this interpretation Abraham misunderstood what God was saying to him.  The text says that after three days Abraham saw the“Makom”. “Makom” usually means “place”.  Abraham saw the “Makom” from afar.  But “Makom” can also refer to God himself – it is another name of God. If we were to read, “He saw God from afar,” it would radically change our understanding.  According to this interpretation,  after three days of hard traveling in the desert, seeking desperately to understand what God wanted of him, Abraham dimly saw a vision of God.  He perceived that God wanted him to sacrifice his son.  But did he get it right?  The word “Merachok,”  from afar, suggests to us that Abraham saw a vision of God that was distorted and unclear. In this version, it was a wrongheaded understanding, to which even a person of perfect faith might be prone.  Abraham, dazed, confused, uncertain of what he saw or heard, wished devoutly to act on God’s wishes, but he was tragically mistaken.  The message of the story is then in part, that God could not abide this heresy.  Could would never condone the death of the innocent carried out in the name of faith.  The binding of Isaac is an illustration of God’s utter rejection of human sacrifice, not for that time alone, but for all time.  Never again could one see taking the life an innocent as pleasing to God.  As Rabbi Plaut writes: “…in this view the story of the text both succeeds and fails.  It succeeds in that it proves Abraham to be a man of faith and obedience, but it fails in that Abraham’s understanding of God’s nature remains deficient.” (P.150 The Torah, A Modern Commentary)

In the history of human kind, Abraham was neither the first nor the last to believe that God wished the death of the innocent.  As the French moralist Blaise Pascale once noted: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” 

While much remains unclear about the motivations of the Boston terrorists, we must assume that a distorted form of religious conviction was certainly one of the factors leading the Tsarnaev brothers to take the lives of so many innocent people in Boston this past April.  An ideology of hatred and intolerance led the young men to maim dozens of people who had done nothing except participate in a day of sport and celebration of community and patriotism.   The perpetrators were young men who had benefited so much from American generosity and support, had gained the privileges of American education and had been offered a path to citizenship and full acceptance.  We can scarcely understand , even after all of the analysis,  the volumes of research into the causes of the attacks how these men could carry out these attacks with such disregard for the humanity of their neighbors.  My daughter’s friends at Cambridge Rindge and Latin knew the younger brother Dzhokhar well.  They were shocked that their friend could have done such a heinous thing.  His teachers were devastated, one had a nervous breakdown.  In the end no explanation will be sufficient.  Whatever may have motivated these particular terrorists, we cannot allow them or any other terrorists to hijack our faith.  We must not let fanatics of any kind deprive our world of the healing power, the hope or the ethical guidance, the enlightened teaching that religion and religious communities can provide. The terrorists shattered limb and flesh and lives.  They shook our sense of safety, of the basic goodness of human beings.  We cannot give them the victory of making our religious tradition another victim of their violence.

After any tragedy, people will rightly ask, where was God?  But today I wish to ask another question, what kind of religion can condone the killing of innocents?  This is not only a theological question, but a human question.   I have encountered many people, in my years as a rabbi, who are impelled to wonder in the light of such an event, whether religion does more harm than good.  My first response is to suggest that religion is not the cause of fanaticism, but rather its victim.  The damage is exacerbated when the killing and evil is perpetrated in the name of religion.  This especially sad as the world needs the moral moorings and spiritual support that true religion can offer.

Let us think back to a few decades ago, which many here will remember, to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.  Some people, out of fear and ignorance, condemned the people who were the first victims of the disease, mainly gay men.  Rather than target the disease, misguided moralists blamed the ailing community.  Now the world has finally come to know that a virus is the true enemy.  Ignorance and hatred only slow the response to this terrible scourge.

Religion itself is at risk of becoming a victim – when we blame religion and not the virus of fanaticism and intolerance which infects it.

As we know, many religious based terrorists belong to cults and cult-like movements such as Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.  Some time ago I came across this definition of a cult:

  1. A totalitarian leader who expects unquestioned allegiance.

  2. It has a group of followers who have given up their right to think

  3. It follows a doctrine that the ends justify the means.

  4. It devotes unlimited funds to mount its programs

  5. It teaches fear, hatred, and suspicion of anyone or anything outside its world.

Cults are not necessarily religious in nature – we know that from Hitler’s Germany.  But attached to religion, cults become that much more dangerous and powerful.

The fact is that Islam is not unique in its susceptibility to cult-like movements and distortion of its values.  We have examples of Christian terrorists, Hindus, and even Buddhist terrorists in the news.  We Jews have our share of religious zealots too who have at times subverted and distorted our philosophy of love and compassion.   Baruch Goldstein and Meir Kahane are two who come to mind. These religiously motivated terrorists do inestimable damage to their own co-religionists.  They harm their own brothers and sisters, distorting the sacred traditions and values of their own faiths.

After the Marathon Bombings I felt the anguish of my friend who is the Imam of the mosque in Cambridge where the elder Tsarnaev brother occasionally attended.  The members of the mosque had been upset by the actions of the young man over the past few years – interrupting sermons, criticizing leaders.  They could not have been more shocked by the actions that followed, and their shame at having such a person in their community also brought fear of reprisal and persecution.

It is important to say that many Islamic leaders have understood the need to speak out publicly against fanaticism and senseless violence.  Unfortunately, we in Jewish community are often unaware of the voices of tolerance which are very prevalent in the Muslim world.  For the past few years the Muslim scholar Ishtiaq Ahmed has sent out messages to Muslims around the world urging that his colleagues repudiate terrorism and defy the fatwas – religious decrees that have kept many leaders silent.  Religious leaders of every faith must continue to speak out publicly to the vision of peace and the teaching of tolerance that is at the core of all religious faiths and philosophies. 

It is up to each of us to examine our own beliefs and actions, to reject hatred and intolerance.  It is our responsibility, as members of a religious community, to vaccinate ourselves against the virus of intolerance.  We can begin by examining our own beliefs and actions.  We must ask ourselves if we have treated those of other faiths with acceptance and understanding, or if we have rejected others out of fear or hatred.  Religion is not the problem – to the contrary, it has the potential of serving as the immune system of the human race in the face of the virus of hatred.  Religion teaches us to see all people as being created in the image of God.  Religion teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to feed the hungry, both the native and the stranger.  The virus of hatred is all the more dangerous when, like HIV, it attacks the immune system of human morality – religion itself.

A few years ago, Elie Wiesel convened an international conference in Oslo, devoted to the persistent problem of hate.  In contrast to the ranting bigotry that the destroyed the United Nations conference on racism in Durban, the Oslo Conference was a time of sober contemplation.  World leaders, scientists, philosophers, and educators gathered to ponder this question:  Why is the human race not satisfied with hating on an individual basis, but insists instead on banding together collectively to hate by country, tribe or creed?

You won’t be surprised to hear, I suspect, that no definitive answer emerged.  There was no press conference to announce the cure for bigotry, or the antidote to hatred.   Yet it is important that the question was asked and considered in a serious and sustained manner.  The fact is that although the epidemic of hatred has been with us as long as the plague, we are just beginning to get serious in seeking a cure.  One important research lead is provided by the experience of our people in the Holocaust.  We know that in the sea of murder and brutality, there were islands of kindness and courageous and saving actions.  In certain villages and among certain communities where tolerance had been taught and nurtured, Jews were hidden and saved in far greater numbers than in other places.  We know that values taught in childhood will stay with us throughout life.  We have much still to learn about how to eliminate the evil of hatred and fanaticism.  But we actually know a lot about the treatment too – if only we could find a way to apply what we do know!

And we do know that true religions must be part of the cure for the human disease.  Religion holds the promise of moving people to live as brothers and sisters.  But if religion succumbs to the malaise of xenophobia, to the sickness of intolerance, then religion itself will die a martyr’s death.

In closing, I would like to share with you a parable which complements our reading of the Binding of Isaac, of the near sacrifice.  This tale features Abraham as well, and was a favorite of a great American Patriot, Benjamin Franklin.  He used to carry around a Bible, open it and reciting from memory, pretend to read this fable from the text:

Abraham was sitting in his tent when an elderly stranger appeared at the portal.  Abraham, as was his custom, hastened to meet the man.  Abraham prepared a feast by his own hand, and the two sat down to dine.  The guest began to pray over the lavish table, and invoked the names of his various pagan gods.  Abraham flew into a rage at the mention of deities other than the One God of All at his own table.  He cast out the visitor, and sent him into the wilderness.

None other than the voice of God called out to Abraham from the heavens.  “Abraham, Abraham, what have you done?  I have tolerated this man in his ignorance for over seventy years, and you could not abide him for an hour!  Go forth to the wilderness and return this many to your abode.  Thus will you make atonement for this terrible sin.  Abraham followed God’s command, and brought the stranger back to his tent, fed him and treated him with respect and tolerance. (The whole fascinating history is related by Fred MacDowell : http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2010/05/benjamin-franklins-parable-on-tolerance.html

How fascinating that this tale was so dear to Franklin – it was his understanding of what the Bible was supposed to teach.  It was his way of linking the values of America to that of an enlightened religion, a Judeo-Christian tradition sensitized by the need to respect difference.

I believe that Benjamin Franklin were he to be here today, would tell us that the best memorial to the victims of the Patriot’s Day Boston Marathon Bombing, to all the victims of terrorism and hatred and religious fanaticism is to seek to root out hatred and intolerance wherever it is found. 

May the blast of the shofar in this New Year stir us to seek a cure for evil. 

May the sound of the Ram’s Horn remind us that God cannot ask of us that which is foreign to God’s teaching of love. 

Never again will we be asked to sacrifice innocent blood in the name of the Eternal One.

I conclude on this day of reflection, with a prayer written by my friend Rabbi Joe Black, in the days immediately following the April bombing in Boston. 

A Prayer in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, by Rabbi Joe Black

Our God who dwells in the highest heights and in the souls of our feet:

 

We find You in the passion of those who delight in testing and celebrating the power of their bodies:

 

The runners who push themselves to find new challenges in the rhythm of the road and the camaraderie of the race;

 

The doctors, medics, police, fire fighters and bystanders whose dedication to humanity drives them to run into the fray - towards the bruised and bloodied bodies in the streets.

 

After days of destruction, we need to remember that the race is not to the swift; there is no finish line for those who seek a better world.

 

Neither bombs, nor blood, not death, nor destruction can deter us from running, O God.

 

We run to You. 

 

We run towards a vision of perfection that is always in our sights.

 

We run determined to never allow hatred to obscure Your presence.

 

We run to build a better world.

 

Be with those who have lost loved ones on this tragic day.

 

Send comfort and healing to the injured and the maimed.

 

Heal them – heal us all – body and soul – as we strive to find You.


Give us hope.

 

Help us to use our arms, our legs, our breath, our determination to unite in a common purpose.

 

In our grief may we find the strength to keep on running.

 

AMEN.

 

*Ecclesiastes 9:11

 

L’Shana Tova Tikateyvu –

 

May we and all of our neighbors,

 

all who seek the renewal of hope,

 

all who pray for the restoration of faith, in God, and in our fellow human beings

 

 be inscribed  for blessing in the Book of Life on this sacred day.

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