Tree of Life

A man may not go out with a sword [on Shabbat], nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with a round shield, nor with a spear

By Joshua Feigelson|November 1, 2018

A man may not go out with a sword [on Shabbat], nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with a round shield, nor with a spear. If he has gone out [with any of these] he is liable for a sin offering. Rabbi Eliezer says: They are ornaments for him. But the Sages say: They are nothing but an indignity, for it is said, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears unto pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).
     ~ Mishnah Shabbat 6:4

It is troubling to me, though admittedly unsurprising, that events in our world and nation in recent years have provided more occasions than I’d care to count to reference and restudy this teaching. With every act of terrorism, with every gun massacre (a far more descriptive term than the far too polite “mass shooting”) a familiar-yet-uncomfortable conversation resurfaces, both in the Jewish press and between individuals in shul, about security and self-defense. What does it mean, we ask, that we feel compelled to hire armed guards, that our clergy have panic buttons under their pulpit lecterns, that we receive grants from the Department of Homeland Security to install explosion-resistant windows and security camera systems? It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

But, of course, to believe the promise that this wouldn’t happen is to forget Jewish history, because it was this way in many other times and places, and not so very long ago either. And further: to believe the promise that something like this wouldn’t happen is also to deny the reality of religious violence in America. Indeed, the shock of this week’s massacre in Pittsburgh is less that it happened than that it took this long to happen. It took until 2018—years after our Muslim, Sikh, and Christian compatriots suffered their own similar tragedies—for this scene to strike American Jewry. It was only a matter of time. 

Before the massacre at Tree of Life this past Shabbat, I had planned to devote this column to the United Nations climate report issued last month. I had planned to reflect on how it seems that Holocaust theology provides a rehearsal for the perhaps even more challenging project—if such a thing can be uttered—of theology in a world of catastrophic ecological collapse (hastened, it pains me to add, by this past weekend’s election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in Brazil, who promises to increase deforestation of the Amazon, i.e., “the Earth’s lungs”). 

I had planned a meditation centered on a striking point of contact between Holocaust and climate change theologies: One of the central challenges of Holocaust theology is how the Mosaic covenant can still be considered in force, much less binding, on the Jewish people after suffering a genocide; Likewise, but on a broader human scale, one of the central challenges of climate change theology is how the Noahide covenant can be considered durable in the face of ecocide. As entire geographies and habitats and civilizations are wiped out with the rising seas and the brutal winds and the blistering heat of drought, how can we take seriously God’s words in Genesis 8:21-22: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” 

My reflection on Holocaust theology has not been in vain, although the dimensions I had hoped to focus on have been forced aside for the moment by an evil man’s automatic weapons. One of the great teachings to emerge in the second-half of the twentieth century from Jewish theologians who reckoned with the meaning of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis was this simple observation: In a world in which a baby can be thrown into an oven simply for being born to Jewish parents, the decision to bring a Jewish child into the world becomes an act of profound courage and extraordinary faith. As my teacher, the theologian Irving (Yitz) Greenberg taught, to have a Jewish child in a post-Shoah world inevitably evokes the possibility that that child could wind up a martyr. The choice to have a child, like the choice to identify as a Jew, is therefore the means by which the covenant is renewed after its evisceration in the crematoria of Treblinka. 

Across the country this Shabbat, I expect that, yes, synagogues will have tighter security, that rabbis will give sermons reflecting on what all this means. I expect, gratefully, that in many places our friends and neighbors of other faiths will show up in solidarity. Most of all, however, I expect that many synagogues will experience unusually high attendance for a service in early November, as Jews put their bodies on the line to defy those who would destroy us, reminded of the value of our freedom and of the courage to sacrifice necessary to maintain it. ​

Image: Star of David memorials line the sidewalk in front of the Tree of Life synagogue two days after the massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 29. (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham | EPA-EFE/REX)​

Joshua Feigelson is Dean of Students at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Joshua Feigelson

Author, Joshua Feigelson, is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.