This Insider Blog post was adapted from a sermon delivered at the Hebrew Tabernacle in Washington Heights, New York on Saturday, December 5, 2015.
We live in a violent society. Just this week, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered fourteen individuals and injured seventeen others at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernadino. They were then killed in a subsequent shootout with police officers. This is a classic and deadly example of sinat chinam — gratuitous hatred. In the name of settling a score or possibly promoting a religious ideology, Syed and Tashfeen committed murder and turned their infant daughter into an orphan.
Reflecting on this week’s Torah portion, the despicable behavior of Jacob’s sons fits into the same general category. Joseph’s older brothers resent him because of Jacob’s preferential treatment. The brothers are so blinded by jealousy and rage that they gang up on Joseph and debate whether to let him live. In the end, they throw him into a pit. While Joseph hollers and begs them to let him go, they sit down to eat bread. They finally wash their hands of him when they sell him as a slave, a classic case of depraved indifference to human life.
In the instances described above, the violent reactions are completely out of proportion to the issues at hand. This is also true for the senseless murder that recently took place at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. How ironic! While the perpetrator supposedly espoused a “pro-life” position, he expressed it by committing murder.
It is no secret that the murders in Colorado Springs occurred against a background of a major legislative assault on reproductive rights in general and Planned Parenthood in particular. It is bad enough that anti-choice politicians seek to defund an organization which disproportionately benefits people of color and women struggling to make ends meet. It is bad enough when anti-choice rhetoric demonizes the 1 in 3 American women who will have an abortion in their lifetimes, who have the unequivocal right to make their own decisions about their reproductive health and future. But when strong rhetoric is translated into murderous violence, there is something deeply wrong with our society. I call it sinat chinam, gratuitous, unreasonable hatred.
Although our history is filled with examples of Jewish communities standing up to tyranny, our tradition frowns upon the use of violence to settle scores. The Torah commands us not to hate our neighbor in our heart, and we are further instructed not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. Jacob’s sons stood by the blood of Joseph by allowing him to thrash around in a pit while they were partaking of a meal. We stand by the blood our neighbor by not protesting the strong rhetoric directed against Planned Parenthood, by not speaking out against violence against women, and by throwing up our hands in the face of gun violence.
But, even with the best of gun violence prevention policies, violent people will always find alternative ways to unleash their rage. As a member of the clergy, I strongly believe that religion has a major role to play in reducing gun violence, and all violence. Religious leaders and religious institutions must get their hands dirty and grapple with social injustice. We must create accepting and inclusive communities, which nurture the mind and heart. To do anything less, organized religion would be complicit with the transgression of standing by the blood of our neighbors.
One of the first statements coming from the Torah dramatically transformed civilization. It introduced the belief that human beings are created in the image of God. I take this to mean that we have the obligation to make sound moral decisions and assume responsibility for the consequences. We have the duty to channel our talents and resources in constructive ways. We have the power to improve the quality of human life.
The Jewish tradition emphasizes the mind rather than the clenched fist to resolve problems. In the words of the popular Chanukah song, Rock of Ages, “And Your word, broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Gale, ordained by Leo Baeck College in London, England is currently the spiritual leader at the Hebrew Tabernacle in New York City. He takes great interest in social causes and interfaith relations. He recently published a novel, The Ballad of East and West, which falls under the category of historical fiction. Although it focuses on Soviet Jewry and East West relations in the 1980s, the book is a metaphor for the coming together of diverse cultures and a plea for international understanding.