Silence and Tragedy: A communal response

By Eli Gaventa, Chinuch Worker 5778

The following is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect official Bnei Akiva positions.

A few weeks ago we read the story of the demise of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, at the hands of God. The response of Aharon in that moment of tremendous grief and personal loss was to remain silent. In the face of personal tragedy sometimes the only appropriate response is silence and reflection, each one of us looking after ourselves and taking the time to process what our next steps should be. This is not the case however when facing communal suffering or tragedy. When the suffering at hand is one that faces more than just a single individual we have a markedly different reaction.

The Gemara in Taanit 11a writes: “Our Rabbis taught: At a time when Israel is immersed in distress, and one of them has separated themselves [from the community], the two ministering angels who accompany a person come and place their hands on this person’s head and say: “This one, So-and-so, who has separated themselves from the community, let them not see the consolation of the community. Another [baraita] was taught: At a time when the community is immersed in distress, a person should not say: “I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul.” If they do so, the verse says of them: “Behold joy and gladness, killing cattle and slaughtering sheep, eating meat and drinking wine. Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Yeshayahu 22:13). What is written after it? “And it was revealed in my ears by the Lord of Hosts: Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die” (ibid., verse 14).” A communal problem requires a communal response – it is entirely inappropriate for us to only think about ourselves and our own concerns. Judaism has an ethic of responsibility that demands connection to the concerns of everyone in the community and action to alleviate them.

Last month a study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine titled “Association of Religiosity with Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt”. It examined 21,247 students aged 18-30 years old in the US and found that ‘overall, increased importance of religion was associated with higher odds of recent suicide ideation for both gay/lesbian and questioning students’. Quite simply for those young people who valued their religion and saw it as an important part of their values-system or community life and were LGBT – the risk of suicide ideation (thinking about suicide) was much higher than if they were heterosexual. In fact, lesbian and gay youth who said that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts, compared to lesbian and gay youth who reported religion was less important. Religiosity among lesbians alone was linked to a 52 percent increased chance of recent suicidal ideation. The results of this study are troubling.[i]

At Bnei Akiva I believe we educate towards a view of religion that emphasizes Pikuach Nefesh and the sanctity of even a single life. If our Judaism, and the communities we are creating across the UK, are not safe and inclusive environments where LGBT people are loved and welcomed we are doing something wrong. If it is specifically religiosity and connection to God and sacred texts or communities that creates an increased chance of suicide ideation amongst our young people we have failed them and our Judaism. This is not only something that effects individuals but is a challenge for our whole community.

This week we read the Parshiot of Achrei Mot-Kedoshim that include within them the prohibition of male to male sexual interaction and whilst the verse speaks about males, the larger cultural message seems clear. Same-sex desire is hateful, especially to God. We must ask ourselves what it might be like for a young member of our Tnua to hear these two verses baldly read with no comment and acknowledgement of the pain this might cause them. Do they interpret the silence to mean that no one imagines it remotely possible that there is a gay person in the congregation? Would we really read this portion so blithely if we knew that sitting next to us in shul is a gay person whom we know? Is that acting responsibly?

The ordinariness of the reading about a sexual perversity worthy of death, for a young person going through puberty has the potential to be nothing short of suffocating. While we know that people are no longer put to death for such things, when the verse is read with no attempt to condition, explain or contain the content it leads inevitably to anxiety, debilitating self hatred, overwhelming fears of rejection and the portent of communal shame. Moreover, what of the mother and father of the child who has just braved the challenge of coming out to their parents? What do these verses mean to them, now in their own closet, guilt-ridden, confused and burdened with fears. Can the siblings who know the truth remain trusting of the Torah and comfortable in a community that so characterizes their loved sister or brother? While the verse cannot and should not be excised from the Torah, it also should not be passed over unmentioned.[ii]

Silence in the face of a suffering is never appropriate and we have a responsibility to act and to speak out, specifically at the moment of suffering and not to wait. I’m proud to belong to a movement like Bnei Akiva that has taken action over the past few years to create an inclusive Tnua. A key part of those actions has been inclusivity training for all Madrichim at the beginning of each Machane. The message this carries is to say proudly that LGBT young people will always be welcomed as members of the Tnua. However there is still more to be done – creating inclusive and safe communities is an ongoing challenge. The results of the study above only confirm this.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z’tl, my Rosh Yeshiva, went to great lengths to inculcate within his talmidim a sense of responsibility and urgency towards alleviating the suffering of others. A passage he wrote about the critique of the angels at the Exodus story by God when they offered song and praise at the deaths of the Egyptians is relevant here [paraphrased and adapted to the theme of this article].

“My creatures are drowning in the sea and yet you sing My praise?!” a sea of suffering, a sea of confusion, a sea of alienation from Torat Yisrael. And you—you who are capable of moving the carriage out of the mud, you who could lend a hand, you who could uplift the nation, you who could be inculcating values—you offer song?! This is the real challenge. If you understand the situation— and there is no reason or excuse not to—then you hear the cry that emanates from every part of the country, from every corner of the globe. Someone who cares and once they know what’s going on must ask themselves: What significance does this knowledge have for me? To what extent does it cause me pain? To what extent do I identify with all members of Am Yisrael. To what extent is my spiritual world structured such that Am Yisrael and its dangers are on one side and I, with my considerations and private plans, am on the other? Like Esther did in the story of Purim, we will all have to ask ourselves the question when the time comes: We could have saved; did we? What will be our answer then? More importantly, what is our answer today?

At the very least our answer must be that we will speak out, publicly and with transparency, so that all can hear. At the very least our answer must be that we will not remain silent in the face of the suffering of others.

Shabbat Shalom.

P.S. This year it has been my practice to include in the Chovrot for Svivot a series of open questions to facilitate conversation. I would like to do the same here too, in the spirit of seeking conversation on this topic:

  1. How would you choose to mark a section of Kriat HaTorah that you found particularly troublesome and painful? Do you think it appropriate to do so during Kriat HaTorah or would you find an alternative platform and why?
  2. What additional things do you think Bnei Akiva can do continue to build an inclusive movement?
  3. Do you think that the potential suffering of LGBT young people is a communal issue or a personal challenge?
  4. Can you think of examples where you’ve spoken out against suffering in our communities, societies and the world? Do you think it is easier to challenge suffering in our own communities or in the outside world?
  5. What role do you think Bnei Akiva has in modelling inclusivity towards other Jewish communities in the UK?
  6. How would you personally respond to a member of the Tnua who is LGBT and troubled by this week’s Kriat HaTorah? If you are LGBT how would you prefer to relate to this section?

If you wish to discuss further any of the issues raised in this article please contact eli@bauk.org

[i] It is important to acknowledge that this wasn’t a study of UK students and there are important cultural differences that may affect the results if replicated here in the UK.

[ii] I am indebted to Rabbi Steven Greenberg and his moving article found here: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/silence-is-not-ok-when-torah-is-painful/ it forms the basis for this section.

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