December 12, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, this the first real opportunity I have had to share my thoughts with you about the attacks upon civilians in Mumbai, which occurred over two weeks ago. My guess is that two weeks is a long time ago and so, sadly like other terrorist events it is already fading in our memories. It descends to become just one of numerous, similar episodes- along with the Bali hotel bombings, Indian train explosions, London bus and subway attacks, all of Israel’s travails, even 9-11. There are just so many of these that they tend to merge in our minds. If we are honest with ourselves, we become a bit numb to it all.

Surely the events in Mumbai from November 26-29 have not been forgotten by the 171 or more victims of the attack. And we know that they continue to deeply impact the families of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Rivka Holtzberg, Bentzion Kruman, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, Yoheved Orpaz and Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, who are still observing the sheloshim mourning period of our faith.

From our Jewish tradition we learn that we should not be like Pharaoh, who hardened his heart in the face of pain, suffering and oppression. Though these events are far away and not subject to our direct influence, we cannot be spiritually callous, sitting idly by while our neighbors bleed. In our global economy and interconnected world, we are more linked now than ever before. We dial an 800 service number and find ourselves speaking with someone in India, often in Mumbai. Perhaps that person with whom we spoke is now mourning. Let us not forget their pain and loss. There are a number of perspectives on these events for us to explore.

First, we need to understand what happened, who was involved and why the attack was perpetrated. The answers to some of these questions are still being developed. From many accounts we now believe that on November 26, ten armed men, who were part of a Pakistani Moslem terrorist group called Lashkar-e-Taiba fanned out through downtown Mumbai to destroy Indian Hindu citizens, Mumbai’s flourishing tourism industry and westernized culture, and the small Chabad Lubavitch Jewish enclave in the city. Their goal was death, destruction and terror. Some of the victims were random, while Westerners and Jews were clearly targeted. This attack needs to be seen in the context of the 60 year old conflict between Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, with a particular flash point of Kashmir. But with links to Al Qaida this is also part of fundamentalist Islam’s war with western values and culture, an extension of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the ongoing issues between Israel and the Palestinians. With one attack, the perpetrators confronted multiple issues.

As Americans we are concerned about all the controversy points that are involved. As Jews we poignantly feel the attack upon Nariman House, the Chabad Headquarters in Mumbai. Yes, Americans were attacked because they were Americans. We are proudly American citizens and relate to this injustice. But when Jews are attacked it is different, even when they are Jews who are very different from us in so many ways. We react on an emotional and historical level. We like to think about Jewish oppression as a vestige of yesteryear, but when it raises its ugly head, we are reminded that it is still with us.

Some have questions about Chabad and what they are doing in India. This is the same organized Jewish group of Chasidic Jews, who in our community have Centers down the street from us on West Esplanade and Uptown on Freret St. They sponsor the community Chanukah program in Spanish Plaza and numerous classes. Theirs is an Orthodox approach to Jewish life with one particular difference from what we refer to as “mainstream Orthodoxy” such as is practiced at Beth Israel. Part of this group’s philosophy is outreach to their fellow Jews. Their goal is to attract, entice and engage all Jews to practice Judaism the way they do. I am not on this occasion going to discuss the merits of their program. Whether here in New Orleans, or in Mumbai, their purpose is to be a venue for Jews to be more involved with their Judaism.

Why Mumbai? For many years India has been a destination for Jewish spiritual seekers. It started with our American Jewish hippies in the 1970s and continues today with many young Israelis, who travel to India when they complete their initial 3 years of military service. Regardless of how we feel about Chabad, their activities and philosophy, we relate and hurt with them at this time of sorrow. After all, “we are one” is more than a fundraising slogan as far as I am concerned.

On the Monday following the massacre, I, along with others, attended a memorial service and program at the Metairie Chabad Center. There were some attempts to deal with the events on a theological level. How could God allow innocent, righteous people to be randomly and not so randomly gunned down? Of course this question has been asked in one form or another for centuries, particularly taking us back to the Book of Job. Much will depend upon our understanding of God and how God is involved in the world. If one believes that God controls all, then God has to take the rap for this event, mediated by the belief that only God understands why things happen. For those who understand God as all powerful, but also granting free will to all of humanity, then the sadness can be interpreted as the result of humans expressing their free will badly. Or you might embrace the Harold Kushner approach to such occurrences. Simply put, God is limited;  there is chaos in the world and we turn to God to help us cope with this most recent challenge.

Internationally the Chabad movement is responding to horror by transforming an act of evil into something good. They have launched the “Holtzberg Mitzvah Initiative,” named after Mumbai’s Chabad Director Rabbi Gabi Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, who were killed, leaving their son Moshe an orphan. Consistent with their philosophy they are calling upon all Jews to embrace a new mitzvah as an expression of grief and solidarity with those who lost their lives. This can include regularly taking on a new ritual like lighting Shabbat candles or keeping Kosher, embarking on Torah study, increasing tsedakah involvement or any of a number of other mitzvot. The Chabad program believes: “A mitzvah has the power to reach deep into the core of our being, where a positive deed can help bring peace and goodness to this troubled world.” Part of this statement has mystical Jewish implications to which you may or may not subscribe, but on a practical level it is the way we often memorialize loved ones, which is to live according to their goals and values. Rabbi Zelig Rivkin stated it succinctly when he said, “Goodness and holiness is permanent. Evil is temporary.”

Friends, we are a people of hope. Even in the darkness of this most recent act of terror, I am hopeful. This week we have seen the arrest of one of the leaders of the attack by Pakistani forces working with India. This is a positive development.

While I do not believe that an Obama presidency will instantly change the world, I am optimistic that there will be more steps towards global reconciliation and security. For the past eight years the sole policy of our country to confront conflict has been military. Strong military without concomitant diplomatic offensives will not yield results. I am hopeful that we will see progress in the years ahead.

We are a people of hope. If you had not noticed, each and every one of our worship services concludes with an expression of hope. Some call it messianic, while others recognize that until that time comes, it is up to us to bring wholeness and unity. Only then will that day come when God shall be one and God’s name be one.

Along with our hope, we offer this prayer:

“Merciful God, author of all life, we ask Your blessing for those whose lives were forever altered by the events in Mumbai, India.

For world leaders and the governments of nations: May they set aside petty concern and work together, ensuring justice and peace for all men and women.

For those who perished in these terrorist assaults: May they rest in peace, and may peace be the tribute that we build in memory of their lives.

For those who continue to grieve, for the wives and husbands, the parents, family and friends: May their hearts saddened by the loss of loved ones be strengthened with courage, and come to know the immortal promise of life renewed.

For the children, those left without a parent, and the children who witnessed the attacks: May they flourish in the embrace of loving hearts, and the promise of life well-lived and love unceasingly given.

Our most fervent prayer is that we find newer and better ways to fashion a future of freedom and peace. We pray for courage, wisdom and strength of heart to live every day in hope for a world in which every human being can truly say of each one of its inhabitants: This person too is a child of God.

God of the ages, before Your eyes all empires rise and fall, yet You are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love, and by Your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and to work in ways both large and small for those acts of braveness, honor and human decency that make for peace. Bless all nations so that terror and warfare might one day only be found in our history books.” (Rabbi Billy Dreskin, Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY)

Let us be able to say with the Psalmist: “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”

AMEN