By Noah Diamondstein
I am leading Shabbat morning prayers this Saturday at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Jewish seminary at which I am a rabbinic student. I sat just two days ago with a cantor and a rabbi on our faculty discussing the theme of the service I wished to speak on and the kavanot (intentions) I wished to imbue our prayer with that day. The week’s Torah portion is Noach, my namesake portion, and I told them that I wanted our service to be about how we stand before God. The prayers in our liturgy are the same each time we recite them, but we are not the same. We do not always sit down to pray with the same intentions or emotions, and I wanted to call to our attention the ways in which we represent ourselves in prayer.
This Shabbat, I can imagine no Jerusalemite or Jew who will not come to shul with different emotional baggage than usual. This Shabbat, many of us will carry in our hearts not hope, but fear; not pride, but pain; not determination, but despair. We will think of our loved ones in reciprocal cycles — those of us in Israel will worry for the impact of the events here on American Jewish discourse, those in America about the physical safety of their friends and family. I, myself, have succumbed to these thoughts at times in the past week or two. In private moments, as I sit in my apartment reading and translating Tanach or writing about the Hasmonean Empire’s effect on Jewish life in the times of the Second Temple, I hear a siren and immediately tense up and pray that they don’t grow louder.
On the day that I write this, on Malchei Yisrael Street in Jerusalem, near Machane Yehuda Market, a mere 25-30 minute walk from my front door, two Palestinian terrorist assailants boarded the 78 bus and opened fire and began to stab the riders, killing two, wounding a few others. This is a bus that I regularly take to the shuk to go shopping. Never in my life have I lived so close to such constant danger, or felt more powerless to effect positive change. I write thinking about not only the loss of Jewish life, but the losses on the other side of this violent and often twisted timeline. I mourn not only the loss of the innocent Jews who have suffered at the hands of terrorism, but also the innocent Palestinian Arabs who have died, either by the hands of Jewish terrorists, or simply by being caught in the crossfire of a conflict that they, like me, have no power over.
As a future Reform rabbi, I am to be one of the moderate visionary leaders of our people one day. Acknowledging this responsibility that I am only now beginning to grow into, I feel an urge to respond. Not, of course, with violence — which history has taught us only breeds further violence — but with words, discourse, non-violent leadership. It is with that responsibility in mind that I ask this question of my Jewish brethren both here in Israel and in America: How must we stand before God, in the face of Godless violence?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” Pacifism and idealism can often come across as pedantic, or as expressions only of a person’s naïveté with respect to a given topic. There was a time in my life where I would have been the cynic who would have recited just that exact response to such a quote. But I have matured as an adult in a country where mass shootings are responded to by calls for more guns; I am living in a country whose government preaches non-violence and calls for unconditional negotiation to advance the cause of a demilitarized Palestinian state. These paradoxes exist in a world where the cynics are winning more arguments than the idealists, and where the skeptics are convincing the visionaries that what they imagine for the future is beyond their reach.
How must we stand before God? With not sinat chinam, senseless hatred, but rather with ahavat chinam, senseless love. Love does not mean lowering your guard, or losing one’s self by not defending one’s self. Truly senseless love does not require complete or constant agreement, but it does require a willingness to compromise which can allow those partners in love to sleep beside one another at night.
While a conservative government which will not take action to advance the cause of pluralism and dismantle structural racism is in power, Israel will not truly be able to exhibit senseless love. While the television set continues to run commercials showing how to stab Jews, and imams call for days of rage, and perpetrators of deadly terrorism are celebrated in the streets, Palestinian leadership will not truly be able to exhibit senseless love.
We must stand before God committed to do what it takes to live lives dedicated to peace, and only peace. We must stand before God committed to exhibit Jewish values of tikkun olam and v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha. We must stand before each other: both willing not only to stand against those in our community who would seek to proliferate hate, but also willing to stand in front of them with our back to the violence before all of us, willing to absorb the blow. This is not an easy task, but neither was building a boat out of gopher wood and saving the world. But if that Noach was a good enough leader to pull it off at 600 years old, maybe this Noach can try at 22.
May the one who makes peace in the heavens make peace for all of us, for all of Israel, and for all who live on this Earth.