Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Yom Kippur 5762
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Recent events infuse words long cherished with unexpected meaning. In the days of the Temple, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies but once a year on Yom Kippur. As the repository for the Torah, it precluded easy access. When the High Priest emerged unharmed after an intricate ritual of atonement, he prayed for a bountiful new year and the welfare of all Israel, singling out those for special mention who were at risk from natural catastrophes. "May their homes not become their graves." Since September 11, that prayer has been ever present in my mind.
Our homes and workplaces, our means of transit and public spaces become our graves when struck without warning. The ancients feared earthquakes; we Americans must now learn to live in the shadow of terrorism. The simultaneous assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by a faceless enemy that diabolically turned airliners into missiles has stripped us of our innocence, security and confidence. In a conflict without rules or battlefields, every person and place is suddenly fair game. The element of surprise is meant to maximize the devastation. The prayer of the High Priest comes to our lips spontaneously, though redirected against the terror of radical evil rather than acts of nature. Their consequences may be similar, their origins are not.
We speak of a volcanic eruption or a tropical storm, whatever its toll, as a natural catastrophe. A forest fire even does some good. Human beings alone perpetrate radical evil, crimes of barbaric cruelty against fellow humans that shred the innate bonds of human solidarity. Such unalloyed malevolence is always a function of volition gone awry. Hannah Arendt introduced the concept in her searing study, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in 1951 long before the terms "genocide" and "Holocaust" were applied to the crimes of the Nazis and Communists. She depicted totalitarianism as a uniquely 20th century phenomenon in which unrestrained, systematic terror was employed to advance the interests of a highly ideological political movement. The application of the concept of radical evil to the torture, suffering and carnage inflicted on untold millions by both movements was meant to disabuse readers of the "great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations." Common sense was not up to understanding the unthinkable.
In contrast, the terrorism to which we awoke on September 11th is driven by raw hatred, not any grand idea, no matter how perverse. Equally new and unsettling is the stark fact that there is no shortage of young men ready to sacrifice themselves to deliver it. Neither Hitler nor Stalin nor their countless minions wished to achieve their inhuman ends by martyrdom. Nor did the violent factions of the post-1968 New Left court suicide. If the resentment of Muslim fanatics is a measure of their impotence and impoverishment, then suicide as an instrument of disruption modifies the imbalance. Yet their terrorism is but another insidious form of radical evil because it makes a mockery of the sanctity of human life, both that of the victim and the assailant.
For Judaism which values human life above all else, nothing could be more abhorrent. Among the enemies of ancient Israel, the Amalekites were harshly condemned to be eradicated, not just subdued. In the wilderness they were the first to attack the Israelites departing Egypt and the most cowardly. According to one tradition they preyed on the weary and infirm at the rear of the line, innocent civilians, avoiding any engagement with the soldiers marching in defense. It is not a stretch to conceive of Amalek as a terrorist nation whose dastardly acts earn the Torah's uncompromising ire. Some day "you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)."
The most sweeping articulation of the ultimate value of every human life was given by the Mishnah . In capital cases, witnesses about to testify were to be admonished by the judges not to trifle with the truth. A homily followed: Why did human life on earth, according to the Torah, start with the creation by God of a single human being? To drive home the point that a person who extinguishes the life of another has in effect threatened the continuity of all human life. For at the very beginning, the fate of humanity rested on the survival of Adam, our one ancestor.
The same humble origins also underlined the equality of all members of the human race. None could claim to come from better stock. We are inextricably united in our common ancestry. And finally, the infinite individuality of humankind is a tribute to God's grandeur. A midrash points out that when a craftsman makes a mold, every artifact shaped by it is identical. Not so with the descendants of Adam and Eve. Despite sharing the same mold (you might say DNA), each human being is unlike any other. All of us abound in distinctiveness (Sanhedrin 4:5). Against the backdrop of such a lofty view of human worth, equality and individuality, no human is to be treated as a mere means to a greater end. Every one of us constitutes an end, the embodiment of supreme significance. I know of no theology that provides a firmer foundation for a political doctrine of inalienable human rights.
On the high Holy Days, Jews gather in their synagogues to rededicate themselves to the realization of that vision of humanity. We seek God's help because we are acutely aware that the human heart is devious and perverse, uncircumcised, in the graphic imagery of Scripture. But that is not a circumcision we can perform alone. We need divine assistance to tame our passions. In every Amidah of the season we ask God to imbue humanity with a sense of God's awesome grandeur so that it might be moved to unite in serving God with a full heart. Only then will righteousness prevail permanently "as iniquity will be silenced and wickedness go up like smoke and tyranny pass from the earth." In the long run, the radical evil of contemporary terrorism can be banished only by embracing the power of that which is radically good.
May you have an easy fast,