Pittsburgh Through the Eyes of Two Jews

Brian Newman
Nov 4, 2018 · 7 min read

It has been a week since senseless violence struck Pittsburgh. News cycles have come and gone. The funerals are over. So now is the time to reflect on it.

His suffering as a survivor of multiple concentration camps is almost incomparable. A melancholy spirit permeated his life, and yet he persevered in a quest for justice so that no human being would go through what he endured under Nazism.

Elie Wiesel’s writing changed the way I look at the world, and in particular how I understand unjust suffering and evil. Most importantly, Wiesel’s thinking has caused me to become an advocate for those who have no voice to protest their plight.

“We must always take sides,” Wiesel said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

A massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue recently sent me back to Wiesel’s life and philosophy. I have been asked by Jews, Christians, and Muslims how I am processing the indiscriminate destruction of life — in this case of older Jewish people in shul for a weekly shabbat service.

Tikkun Olam and Eliminating Evil

The Hebrew concept of Tikkun Olam (to repair the world) is rich and moving and is a great motivator for many progressive Jews, as well as for Christians and Muslims around the world. It was a great motivator for Wiesel, although he believed that the world could only be repaired if you first eliminate evil.

Many Jews subscribe to this worldview. Simon Wiesenthal, also a well known Holocaust survivor, dedicated his life to hunting down fugitive Nazis to bring them to justice. Many causes led by Jews seek to blot out an evil or unjust situation.

Other people believe that creating homogeneous communities (all Jews in one community, Christians in another, Muslims in still another) is the path to Tikkun Olam. And each of these communities is tasked with getting rid of their own “rotten apples,” those people who would wreak havoc on their society.

This is precisely why White Nationalists in the United States can be doggedly antisemitic and pro Israel at the same time. To the White Nationalist, America is for white people of northern European descent. Israel is for people of Jewish descent. Each ethnic group should have their own land and keep to themselves. This is the distorted worldview of ultra-nationalism. And yet fringe people believe this is how the world is repaired.

Finally there are those people who believe self-defense is the prerequisite to Tikkun Olam. Public religious services should have visibly armed guards who will “take out the perpetrator” before he takes out innocent people. When we are safe and secure Tikkun Olam can emerge. That is the thinking.

Wiesel’s life was marked by his fierce determination to blot out evil. While I admire and respect that greatly, in the end it is not enough.

How Much Tikkun Olam is Enough?

In the film Schindler’s List, who can ever forget Schindler’s regret that he did not save more Jews, even though his efforts were heroic and he was reminded by the prisoners that there would be generations of Jews because of his choices to rescue people from the Nazis. Even though the Talmud tells us that he who saves one life saves the world entire, (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a) Schindler was tormented because he could not do enough to save people.

In our deeply polarized world, we can quickly conclude that there is not enough Tikkun Olam to go around. In fact, it can feel as if powers of evil and darkness are overwhelming the powers to repair the world, especially when evil is personified in people with great influence.

I admire Elie Wiesel for never giving in to despair, and never giving up on Tikkun Olam. And yet I feel a great sadness because there is never enough repair and rebuilding. Tikkun Olam is noble, and even righteous, but it is not enough.

The Upside Down Nature of All Things Good

The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre is a stark reminder that the world is a deeply broken place, and that evil pierces every part of creation in one way or another. It is part of the fabric of our societies.

So, shall we become despondent and fatalistic and give in to the most base instincts of our fallen selves?

Shall we become cruel and dehumanizing and vindictive towards adversaries?

Absolutely not. Here’s why and here’s how we resist that temptation.

We don’t give in to evil because God has not given in. This is where I diverge from Elie Wiesel, with the greatest respect for the man. My challenge in reading Wiesel is his faith journey, or the faith in God that he lost as a young boy in Auschwitz. I do not know how Wiesel ended his life — in relationship with God, not in relationship with God, having forgiven God, having been forgiven by God. When you read Wiesel’s writing and listen to his talks you hear a person who desperately WANTS to be believe in God and His goodness. And yet he doubts God and His goodness at every turn.

The Unfairness of Grace

Last week a Messianic Rabbi spoke at a political rally held by Mike Pence. Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reformed Jews, Atheist Jews, and just about every other Jew condemned this Rabbi. The anger of many of my people (Jews) was palpable.

Why? Because the Messianic Rabbi believes in Jesus, and believes that Jesus is the Messiah. And that Jesus is the embodiment of this “absurd” thing called God’s GRACE.

[Now to my Jewish friends — Please, please, please give yourself the opportunity to hear a different narrative than we have grown up with. Let’s actually be progressive and be open to a new idea right now. Please keep reading.]

In one crucial way, I agree with this Messianic rabbi. I do not question God’s goodness … because of another Jew, a carpenter and rabbi named Jesus. All of God’s goodness and grace is found in Jesus. I know that for my Jewish friends reading this you may feel a knot in your stomach right about now.! You may feel yourself getting angry, or worse.

I know the feeling.

Here’s why: Grace is absolutely and completely UNFAIR. It is not fair that God would love a perpetrator of evil. It is not fair that people who say and do horrible things would be objects of undeserved grace or mercy.

The upside down nature of goodness is that God is good and gracious to those who do not deserve it. He forgives the unforgivable. And that is why I said on social media this week:

“For those small minority of people who quietly are pleased that Jews were harmed (and I believe it is a SMALL number of people), I hope you encounter the gracious and forgiving God in ways that change your heart.”

It is NOT that God is soft on evil. It is that God pays for the evil by his own sacrifice. Justice is done by God to Himself.

So when I encounter someone who is antisemitic (and some are part of the Christian faith tradition that I am now part of) I do not wish them ill or well. I wish that they have a genuine encounter with the God of the universe in all of His grandeur and justice and grace and mercy.

Love All, Serve All

The motto of The Hard rock Cafe is “Love All, Serve All.” Who would have ever guessed that a restaurant dedicated to rock and rock music would capture how we should live our lives in our times of hatred and evil.

Love all, serve all. That’s it.

I believe “all” means “all” here. Jesus gave this command.

  • He took his fellow Jewish friends into Samaritan territory (unclean people) and then had the nerve to speak to a WOMAN no less.
  • He told his followers to love their enemies and not to seek vengeance on them.
  • He was most harsh with people like himself (Jewish men) and most accommodating to Gentiles and other “sinners.”
  • He did not condemn a woman caught in adultery and then told her to stop committing adultery.
  • He commended the faith of a soldier of the occupying Roman army.
  • He forgave a criminal hanging on a cross and promised that he would be in paradise that very day.

The Answer to Pittsburgh?

I do not have a magic wand which can be waived to give a full and complete explanation to the massacre of 11 Jewish people in Pittsburgh last week. But I do ask a similar question that Elie Wiesel asked in a concentration camp 70 years ago. The question was and is: Where is God in the midst of this evil?

My answer is that He is with us even through these horrors. God is with us in the person of Jesus — offering hope from despair, forgiving people through God’s own sacrifice, and bringing glimpses of tikkun olam even if only for a moment.

Brian Newman is the founder of The Isaac Ishmael Initiative and serves on the staff of Living Word Community Church in York, Pennsylvania.

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