The synagogue in Pittsburgh is called the Tree of Life. The name is a translation into English of the Hebrew phrase etz chaim. We sing those words as the Torah is put away on every Shabbat. They are words from the Book of Proverbs: “She is a tree of life for those that cling to her and all who do are happy.” The “she” in that sentence is “wisdom,” and the verse that precedes it is especially poignant in light of what has happened: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” Today the paths of peace were befouled by a monstrous anti-Semite who stormed the Tree of Life shouting something about Jews needing to die as he murdered and injured and then shot at some cops for good measure.
In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. In a classic act of anti-Semitic violence, which is what this is, Jews hear the echoes of every violent anti-Semitic act that has preceded it in history. And we hear those echoes because they are there. That which motivates Jew-hatred today is what has motivated it from time immemorial—the poisonously attractive idea that Jews need to be extirpated because our existence is an offense or a threat to an existing larger order. The blessing of Jewish life in America is that this notion has largely been consigned to the dregs from which today’s human malignancy rose. Despite the fact that most hate crimes in America are aimed at Jews, the actual number is vanishingly small—especially compared to France, from which Jews are now fleeing, and England, whose Labour Party is in the hands of an actual Jew-hater.
Because we are obliged by the sickness of our political culture to analyze every despicable event in a manner designed to confirm our priors, we have already, mere hours after the barbarity, sunk into a nauseating discussion about how much blame to assign to the president for this unspeakable act. The obvious answer is: None. Donald Trump should be assigned no such blame, even if the shooter were the president of the Donald Trump Fan Club, because he pulled no trigger and committed no crime. Period. To do that, to assign blame, is to whitewash the crime itself and the criminal’s responsibility for it. He becomes a cultural robot, seized by an evil collective unconscious that drove him to his crimes.
Based on the early evidence, the shooter was not only consumed with a hatred of Jews but possessed a kind of sneering contempt for Trump on the grounds that Trump was basically a Jewish agent or a Jew-lover himself. Trump can only be blamed for the murderous Jew-killing actions of someone who thought of him that way by people who are so consumed by hatred of him that there is nothing they won’t blame him for.
Take the insta-response on Twitter of those listening to Trump say an armed guard inside the shul might have been able to do something about the shooter. Granted, it was an indelicate and crass thing to say as the first response to this horror. But the disgust at the very idea of armed men inside a synagogue was beyond deranged. How dare he! Why should anyone have to pray with armed guards around them?
To which the only logical response is: Are you people insane? There are armed guards inside and around synagogues and Jewish institutions all over the place. Jewish day schools have armed guards. Besides which, many of us go to work in buildings with armed guards.
Is it a wonderful or healthy thing that this is necessary? No. But the act of saying that it might be a good idea because there are lunatics who might otherwise do terrible things should be unobjectionable. Is what Trump said only bad in the eyes of many who populate the Twitter feed I now only read (I have stopped posting all but article links on the site) because it was Trump who said it? Yes.
Where I won’t let Trump off the hook here is the way in which he does nothing to try to calm the political atmosphere and rather seeks to secure an advantage from the way it roils. He should be better than this, because everyone should, and he’s not, and that’s both sad and bad. He’s just not a good person, and there are times, times like these, when the country would benefit from having a better person as president. The passage in Proverbs from which “the tree of life” derives also features these verses it would do well for the president to reflect upon: “Keep sound wisdom and discretion, so they will be life to your soul, and adornment to your neck./Then you will walk in your way securely/And your foot will not stumble.”
In a time of horror, we should all look to the blessings of wisdom to save us from the moral idiocy into which we can all fall, all too easily.
“The wise will inherit honor,” says Proverbs. “Fools display dishonor.”