Friday, December 5, 2008

The Lessons of Mumbai

In the midst of the justifiable outrage over last week’s terror attacks in Mumbai, it has been all too tempting to focus on the way Jews were targeted unlike any other group. The deaths of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka have been the focus of so much grief, again justifiably. In Israel, the Holtzbergs are being treated as national heroes. Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in the The New Republic, “In embracing the Holtzbergs, Israelis were restoring to the national ethos the old concept of kiddush hashem, religious martyrdom.” Halevi contrasts the reaction to the Holtzbergs’ deaths with the tepid response for another victim of Mumbai, the anti-Zionist Satmer hasid Leibish Teitelbaum, whose family wouldn’t allow his casket to be draped in the Israeli flag.

We’ve long known that we are the canary in the mine shaft of hatred and terror, but the focus on Jewish suffering here is also a gross generalization that clouds some important facts, in particular that Americans and British were also specifically singled out by the terrorists. The fact that an American cultural center wasn’t picked as a target does not mean that they were less the focus of the terrorists’ irrational hate.

Now this won’t make American Jews any more comfortable – it’s wonderful to know that we are doubly despised. But none of this is new to us. I believe it is a grave mistake to focus on the particularly Jewish aspects of this murder, when it was an attack, first and foremost, on India, and on western civilization. We Jews have something to offer the world, gained from centuries of experience at being hated for no reason other than that we stand up for life and innocence. Now the world is ready to listen to us – but they can only listen to us if we take our eyes off our own navels and engage them, acknowledging that their suffering is as great as ours.

The fact that the Holtzberg child will now be an orphan makes it all too tempting to use him as the poster child for Jewish victimization. All that will accomplish, in my mind, is to train our children to hate. I would not want to see him become the Jewish version of Muhammad Al Dura, that Palestinian child falsely used as the symbol of alleged Israeli oppression. It has since been proven that he was not shot by Israeli bullets; but I’m talking here not about the method or intent of the death, but rather the use of a child, any child, for propagandistic purposes. I just hope that Moshe Holtzberg will be allowed to grow up in peace. At his parents’ funeral, Moshe was called by one eulogizer “the child of all Israel.” Of course all Israel feels great compassion and sympathy for Moshe. But I beg those who now care for him to please let Moshe simply be a child, not a poster child, not a symbol. We have enough symbols.

After all, Moshe, unlike most martyrs, is alive. If anything, I would hope that the tragedy of the Holtzbergs might call attention to his dead sibling, and his other, hospitalized one, who are victims of Tay Sachs disease. This well known disease effects primarily Ashkenazi Jews, is always fatal and brings only the most cruel, painful death, usually by age four. It is not curable but it is preventable, through genetic screening. I am loath to be critical of people as kind and courageous as the Holtzbergs were, but it is beyond me how any Jew who intends to procreate with another Jew in this day and age would not undergo a simple act of genetic screening before getting married.

I’ve been looking at some of the blogs and chat groups on this matter, and many are expressing bewilderment that the Holtzbergs had kids at all. One person made the horrible claim that their murder was a divine punishment from their having brought suffering children into the world. I find that claim downright dangerous (much like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s obscene claim that Hurricane Katrina was a divine punishment for the withdrawal from Gaza).

Another person wrote, “Genetic screening removes the element of trust in Hashem and the power of miracles and prayers from the equation.” If indeed that is why Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife were never screened, or continued to have children in spite of their clear evidence that they were carriers of Tay Sachs (Rivka was six months pregnant when she was killed last week), that also cannot be ignored. There is a large chance that the child growing in Rivka's belly would have suffered a fate more painful than any of the victims suffered last week. And who knows how many other kids they were planning to bring into this world.

If the Holzbergs are now going to be lionized for the purity of faith, then they must also be criticized for the naiveté of their faith.

Ultimately, where there is pure faith, there is ALWAYS naiveté, and pure faith should never be lionized. To be Jewish in this world is to recognize above all that God’s word is best understood through the subtlety of a still, small voice – the Torah is best read in shades of gray. I don’t know much about God’s ways, but I could never believe in a God that would give us the tools to know how to prevent children from suffering as unbearably as Tay Sachs victims do and yet encourage us to ignore those tools because of an alleged faith in that same God.

My understanding is that Chabad mandates genetic testing prior to dating, so this is not about any organizational policy. My only point is that were I to be standing before a group of young Jewish adults right now, I would cry for all the victims of hate and terror and then beg these young adults to go out tomorrow and do two things: 1) perform an act that will bring a little more love and goodness into the world … and 2) make an appointment for some genetic screening.

As the Talmud tells is, “Save a life, save the world.” The same is true for preventable premature deaths.

1 comment:

Hesh Romanowitz said...

Rabbi Hammerman presents an eloquent analysis of the Mumbai/Chabad murders and their significance.
After reviewing the overall impact of this newest terror outrage and its lessons, we are asked to focus our attention on the tragedy of Tay-Sachs disease and its impact.
Not, G-d forbid, in any way to equate one with the other. But, as an opportunity to address a different question and issue:
Jewish ethical and Halachic values place human life above most everything else in our faith. (I believe there are but three violations or acts that are impermissable in order to preserve life. Committing murder, sexual transgression such as incest, and idol worshipping.)
Indeed, when faced with inevitable early death, accompanied by horrific pain and suffering, a small number of Orthodox sources stubbornly persist in knowingly encouraging parents to continue bringing infants and babies into a world where such death is a certainty. Emphasis, however, must be placed upon tghe term "human" life; not mere existence, i.e. breathing, heart beating, etc. "Our Jewish way" recognizes life as more than physiological functioning of heart, lungs, intestines. Brain activity (beyond brain stem) is integrated into contemporary definitions of life. Most enlightened Orthodox sources agree.
There is even Talmudic precedent that might be applied to such tragic situations. (Specific Gemara reference available upon request):
Our sages are presented with parents who question whether circumcision must be performed on their newborn son whose two older siblings each underwent brit milah and subsequently bled to death from the procedure.
(This Talmud citation is also notable as it presents, for the very first time in "the medical literature", the description of a genetically-transmitted syndrome.)
The commandment regarding circumcision is paramount. The very first Jewish mitzvah, it supercedes Shabbat and even Yom Kippur. Its place in our faith is sacrosanct.
Still, these wise Rabbis of the Talmudic period, when given this family's history, rule that circumcision must NOT be performed.
Let us then assert, as does Rabbi Hammerman, that we act with equal sensitivity and follow Jewish law: Do most everything to avoid the miserable suffering and deaths of infants carrying the Tay-Sachs (or other fatal) genes. Withholding circumcision and acting to avoid inevitably fatal, genetically transmitted childhood diseases may "violate" sacred precepts. Yet, such actions actually strengthen and reinforce our most treasured beliefs and principles.

Harry Romanowitz, M. D.
Stamford, Connecticut