A time to take stock of our lives and our world

by | Sep 4, 2016 | Torah Thought

The 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on America is almost upon us. Let us stop and reflect on this moment. As Jews, let us also see this moment through the lens of Torah.

The 9/11 attacks were proof that there are people who hate us and the freedoms we stand for, who want us dead, and whose jihadist ideology motivates them to kill themselves in order to kill more of us. This is not about socio-economic inequalities or echoes of colonialism, although those factors are secondary aids in jihadist recruitment. The most important cause of jihadism is the mentality that the entire world must be brought violently into submission to the One God, as conceptualized by a subset of one faith community.

What does the Torah say we ought to do about that?

The Torah teaches us to seek peace and pursue it, but it does not counsel us to allow enemies simply to slaughter us. “When you take the field against your enemies…” begins the 20th chapter of Deuteronomy, which we will be reading on the Shabbat just before Sept. 11. Some wars are just. Defending ourselves against jihadists—iSiS, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah—is just, even as defending ourselves against Hitler was just.

Being prepared for war does not preclude ongoing efforts to cultivate new ground for understanding with people who are prepared to coexist. Just as there is a time for war, so is there a time for peace; uprooting is sometimes necessary, but so is planting.

9/11 was the work of people who substitute bloodthirsty zeal for the pacifying work of ethically-administered justice. This week’s Torah portion, “Shofetim,” “judges,” contains immortal teachings on the goal of judging: “Govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, we should also reflect on the diversity of its victims: Americans and foreigners living and working productively in our country; Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Jews and Gentiles. The fratricidal identity politics and the stereotyping nativism of our contemporary politics dishonor the memories of the victims. People who hate murdered them. We ought not to respond in ways that feed hatred. We know what the Torah says about that: “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:17-18). Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

The dance of the Jewish calendar and the solar, secular one is such that this year, Sept. 11 falls during the month of Elul. This is the final month before Rosh Hashanah, when we believe that God judges all of humanity. We believe in the One God, and jihadists also believe in One God. But the difference between our monotheism and theirs is that our conception of God allows people to be different, even in holding to different faiths. “When you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon…These, the LORD your God allotted to other peoples…” (Deuteronomy 4:19) We Jews cherish the covenant given to us at Sinai, but we are part of the family of nations. All people, Jews and Gentiles alike, are to observe the covenant given to Noah’s children— that is to say, to all humanity—after the Flood. Our neighbors stand justified before Heaven if they are good and ethical people. We do not seek to force them to abjure their faith.

As we approach the anniversary of the worst attack on American soil of the past three quarters of a century, let us remember and honor the victims; let us recommit to the values that distinguish us from the murderers; and let us each do our part to repair the world.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel