Thirteen Martyrs

Thirteen people were murdered last week by white supremacists.

On Wednesday, Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, were murdered at a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky. Mr. Stallard was at the supermarket with his ten year-old grandson to buy posterboard for a school project.

On Saturday, eleven Jews were slaughtered at the beginning of their Shabbat services in Pittsburgh. Joyce Feinberg, 75, a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, mother and grandmother. Irving Younger, 69, a greeter at shul. Melvin Wax, father and grandfather, always in a good mood. Rose Mallinger, 97, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; her daughter was injured in the attack. Bernice Simon, 84 and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; were married at the Tree of Life Synagogue more than 60 years ago. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, primary care physician and an early healthcare provider for HIV treatment. Richard Gottfried, 65, dentist who dedicated time to helping those without insurance and underinsured. Daniel Stein, 71, recently became a grandfather and attended Shabbat services every week. Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and his brother David Rosenthal, 54. Developmentally disabled brothers who greeted everyone who came to shul with a smile and a prayer book.

As my teacher, Dr. Rabbi Elijah Schochet confirmed, the slain Jews are Kedoshim HaShem, their deaths are a sanctification of God’s name, they are among the martyrs of Israel. We are commanded to choose life, and never to seek out death. Thus, Jewish martyrdom is not about choosing to die for your religion. Indeed, over the course of history, most of our martyrs were not given any choice in the matter. Now, I can understand that stating these murders are holy deaths can be disconcerting. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg points out, we must understand the context of their martyrdom and challenge the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.

HaShem Yikom Damam. May HaShem avenge their blood. This is the traditional statement regarding martyrs. Wendy Kenin wrote a concise explanation of Jewish martyrdom in The Times of Israel, calling upon the wisdom of Rabbanit Sabrina Schneider.

There is a difference between avenge, the goal being justice and revenge which is angry retaliation. Even if in self defense a person kills an assailant, justice is in the jurisdiction of the Almighty.

It makes sense that the Jewish honorifics in these situations leaves the solution to Hashem the true Judge, similar to saying Baruch Dayan HaEmet or “Blessed is the true Judge,” which is a common term from our liturgy used after a person passes, sometimes with family members practicing the custom of tearing their clothing. But in the case of cold blood murder, it is an expression of our humanity to recognize there is an injustice that we do not accept when a Jew has been martyred while still maintaining faith in the ultimate outcome.

Rabbanit Schneider elaborates, “Jewish martyrdom is unique in that it isn’t something that the Jew seeks. Contrary to radical Islam, martyrdom is not glorified. Only G-d is glorified. Living a life in service to the Creator is what the Torah Jew ultimately seeks with the ultimate goal of perfecting all of humankind.”

More common honorifics for the deceased are “May their memory be a blessing,” or “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion.” But for the anti-Semitic act of murdering Jews just for being Jews, we need a clearer statement that acknowledges the horror and injustice — one that does not invoke hate, one that does not perpetuate the cycle of violence, one that is inclusive of those sentiments of comfort, blessings, and faith. The phrase for martyred Jews already exists and has been in use for generations, “May Hashem avenge their blood.”

I reflect on this teaching because it is so painful that these murders are being shuffled away in the onslaught of the news cycle. I have felt the normalization of white supremacist rhetoric since Trump declared his candidacy. I have witnessed the rise in anti-Semitism, racism, and hate. And when a Christian wore a tallit and invoked Jesus before Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a rally yesterday, my political animosity boiled over. Like many Jewish Americans, I blamed Pence and his forceful evangelism for the slight. I seemed to be one of the first in my circles to learn that Lena Epstein, a Jewish Republican candidate for Congress, took responsibility for inviting the Jew for Jesus Messianic Christian as a sign of “religious tolerance.”

And as I signed off Twitter last night, I worried that I was letting my emotions get the better of me. I don’t want to speak out of anger. I want to transform my anger into righteous action that honors the souls of everyone around me, including people who cannot see how hurtful they are being. This is an important turning point for understanding the reality of the threat that surrounds us. Words matter. Choices matter. Three days after a massacre, allow a Jewish clergy person to stand up and say a benediction. Allow us to mourn our dead and acknowledge the horror and injustice, without invoking hate and without fake universalism. Each specific act of hate must be called out for what it is. Yes, thirteen people died last week at the hands of white supremacists. Two died because they are Black. Eleven died because they are Jewish. May HaShem avenge their blood.