A Personal Reaction to the Shooting in Charleston (Corrected)
By Rabbi David Polsky
Yesterday was the first day of the Jewish month of Tammuz. In a little over two weeks, we will begin a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of the temple, culminating in the fast of Tisha B'Av. Even though it has been almost two thousand years since the second temple was destroyed, we still mourn for its destruction. This may seem excessive for what appears as just a building.
But, for religious Jews, the temple for was not just mortar and bricks. In traditional Jewish thought, the temple expressed our most sacred ideals and beliefs. In the temple, the Jewish people could worship and commune with God in the most sublime manner possible to humans. The temple not only helped the Jewish people connect to God, but it even served to foster greater connection within the entire cosmos. Even when life outside the temple was difficult and chaotic, the temple and the greater perception of God's presence served as a constant reminder to the Jewish people that God had not abandoned them.
Contemplating the significance of the temple helps us to understand why we still mourn its destruction after such a long time, and even after the creation of the State of Israel. I believe it also helps us to appreciate why we mourn all of the tragedies of Jewish history on Tisha B'Av, the day on which the two temples were destroyed. The destruction of the temple represents not just the loss of a beautiful structure or sublime worship, but our very sense of connection with the cosmos and our place within it.
Spiritual sensitivity to the importance of the Jerusalem Temple enables us to better understand the horror of the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. The viciousness of the attack is exacerbated by Emanual AME's place within the lives of its worshippers. It was the oldest black church in the South outside of Baltimore. As Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate magazine, the church was a "historic symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism."
Aside from the particular significance of Emanuel AME, we must appreciate the shooting in the context of African American history. Emanuel AME is certainly not the first African American church in the south to be attacked. During Jim Crow, African American churches were frequent targets of terrorism. There are many reasons for churches being selected as targets. But among them are their roles as sanctuaries from hatred outside their walls.
Entering the Jerusalem Temple (and also the synagogue, a miniature temple) enabled the Jewish people to feel God's presence and protection despite droughts, wars, etc. Similarly, I can imagine that for many African Americans, churches served (and continue to serve) as spiritual safe-havens from the racism, discrimination, and hatred felt outside its walls. Terror attacks like that against Emanuel AME thus suggest attempts to provoke African American feelings of terror in their sacred spaces, the spaces in which they feel most spiritually protected.
By attacking African American churches, Dylann Storm Roof and other terrorists convey another not so subtle message that should be offensive to all religious people: That-God forbid-African Americans are not created in God's image, cannot connect with Him, and are-again, God forbid-unworthy of His love. Just as the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem led us to feel separated from God, the shootings at Emanuel AME suggest an attempt to do the same to its parishioners.
As a rabbi and religious leader, I also mourn the death of Emanuel AME's pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. My friend and rabbinic colleague, R. Avraham Bronstein, tweeted another reminder of the parallels felt between the attack and the destruction of the temple, a reference to Lamentations 2:20: "Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord?"
Finally the hatred expressed by Dylann Storm Roof reminds me of another parallel. According to the Talmud, the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. It is hard to think of a baseless hatred more irrational, fierce, and destructive than that of racism.
I pray that God comforts and brings spiritual healing to the congregants of Emanuel AME as well as the community of Charleston. I further pray that God heals the rest of us as well from racism and other forms of baseless hatred.