Reflections on the [First] Anniversary of the Attack on the Twin Towers

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
 

STUDENT SUMMARIES OF SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA

 

“Is Anything New under the Sun?”

Reflections on the First Anniversary of the Attack on the Twin Towers[1]

 

Based on an address by

HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN

 

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen with Reuven Ziegler

Translated by David Strauss with Dov Karoll

 

 

            On this date now identified with tragedy, we pause for reflection, hopefully to attain some spiritual meaning and growth in this period of introspection. Considering the trauma, suffering and evil of extraordinary proportions and intensity, it is natural that this tragedy should reverberate both in America and throughout the world.  Yet I wish to devote my remarks to tempering somewhat our reactions to the moral and religious consequences of the event.

 

            I hope that my words will not be misunderstood, and that they will not be construed as reflecting a lack of sensitivity. I would not, God forbid, want to make light of the tragedy of the murder of a single individual or of the anguish of a single family that suffered a loss. How much more so, when we are dealing with an atrocity of such horrendously vast proportions, must the thousands of afflicted families be accorded the appropriate sympathy and support.

 

            On the human level, the pain is terrible. Identifying with it is not only a duty imposed by the conscience, but also a visceral, instinctive reaction. That being said, I would nevertheless resist the notion that the evil committed on that bitter day marks a revolutionary change in our world from either a religious or a moral perspective. In keeping with this theme, I have titled this address, “Is anything new under the sun?”

 

            Taking a step back, it is worth noting that, sadly, the confrontation with evil – even evil as vast as this – is familiar to us. The questions raised by such tragedies are difficult and penetrating. The absence of satisfactory answers to these questions is an age-old challenge to people of faith.

 

            With all our pain and sorrow, we must understand and remember that no one can provide easy answers regarding Divine providence and the Holocaust, in whose shadow we still live. We must recall how dumbfounded we stood, and stand, contemplating the depth of the evil attained by a developed, cultured society. We must not forget that phenomenon, so unfathomable and incomprehensible, of God’s hiding of His face from the world.

 

            A year ago, we were witness to a scene that would have been unthinkable even in our most nightmarish imagination. And yet, and without dulling in the least our sensitivity to the value of every individual’s life, we must acknowledge that this terrorist attack is utterly dwarfed by the blood spilled upon European soil over the previous century.

 

            What are the moral and religious ramifications of this event? In great measure, the answer to this question depends on the attitudes one held on “the day before,” on the 10th of September, 2001.

 

            For theological and moral liberals, the events of September 11th surely came as a terrible shock. These groups had internalized the ethos, so prevalent in America in the last two centuries, that life is characterized by pleasantness, success and prosperity. Those who overlooked the tragic aspect of human life surely suffered a shocking blow - both conceptual and emotional – that threatened to undermine their worldview.

 

            A similar shock presumably befell another group beholden to an entirely different perspective: those people of faith who thought they understood fully the ways of Providence. If they had managed to forget what happened in Europe in the previous century, the events of 9/11 presented a renewed challenge to their outlook.

 

For people who thought along either of these lines on the eve of September 11th, the danger of losing faith in man, or an erosion of faith in God, respectively, is a real one. Yet, no such cataclysmic metamorphosis in thought is demanded of one who holds a wholly different approach to life. No such shock befalls one who has internalized – conceptually, existentially and experientially – the idea that “the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Bereishit 8:21), as our Sages understood it. No reorientation is required for one deeply aware of man’s dangerous potential. One who is cognizant that human history, and especially Jewish history, is drenched with blood, surely shares in the agony but is not overwhelmed by shock and bewilderment.

 

Does history have religious meaning? For a believing Jew, the answer is clear: it certainly does. We firmly believe that God is immanently involved in the human world. Yet, this says nothing of our ability to offer explanations, especially detailed and focused ones, as to why any particular event took place. To offer such explanations involves a great deal of chutzpa, tendentiousness and arrogance.

 

There have been those who have professed to know the answers to such questions. Balaam proclaimed that he “knows the knowledge of the Most High” (Bamidbar 24:16), and our Sages indeed describe him as a great prophet. Nevertheless, the Gemara (Berakhot 7a) asks: “Now, he did not even know the mind of his animal; how then could he know the mind of the Most High?” Members of certain schools of thought should take these words to heart.

 

            Do we, as Jews, see man through rose-colored lenses, with the optimism and sense of progress that characterized the nineteenth century? Or do we see man through dark glasses, viewing him pessimistically as a corrupt creature with no chance of redemption?

 

            I believe that Judaism adopts a middle position. On the one hand, we do not share Rousseau’s romantic outlook that views man as a wonderful creature by nature, corrupted only by external circumstances. Our Sages interpreted the verse, “The impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Bereishit 8:21), as teaching that one is born with the “evil impulse,” while the “good impulse” only takes effect from the time one reaches thirteen years of age (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 3:5). From birth, the evil impulse fills man with egotism, aggressiveness and selfishness. In contrast, the good impulse is inculcated through a process of socialization and education, always struggling to catch up to the evil impulse, which has a thirteen-year head-start.

 

            On the other hand, Judaism certainly does not share the distrust of man that characterizes certain streams in Christianity. These branches of Christianity see man as corrupt by his very nature, utterly incapable of change and spiritual ascent. Rather, Judaism shares the view of classical religious humanism, according to which man is not inherently good but is capable of great good, provided that he is trained properly.

 

God’s goodness and grace are pillars of our faith. How, then, can we account for evil? It is certainly true that “the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth”; our Sages have told us that man’s evil impulse renews itself every day (Kiddushin 30b). God has endowed man with free will, which sometimes goes unbridled and has catastrophic results. I have been strongly influence by the teachings of my revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, who refrained, categorically, from providing answers as to why given events took place. I do not know the extent to which this was specifically because of the Holocaust; I presume that on principle he would have advocated standing humbly before the Almighty in any case. This attitude was deeply ingrained in the Rav’s personality and thinking. This humility dictates the conclusion that we are incapable of understanding Divine providence. But, at the same time, we are capable of responding to catastrophe – and thus also obligated to do so.

 

            As such, faced with tragedy, it is our duty to respond. To whatever extent possible, we must draw the appropriate conclusions and continue on our way, determined as before. Our goal must be not to hobble along as wounded survivors, but to press forward with renewed rigor. The ideal response is a combination of humility and struggle. On the one hand, we accept God’s judgment. But on the other hand, we respond with readiness and determination – to rise up and overcome.

 

            We know not why these events happen. But when evil manifests itself, we must confront it. At one level, we must confront its perpetrators directly – a realm beyond my purview. Leaving aside direct confrontation at the practical, political or social plane, this manifestation of evil demands that we sharpen our awareness of the evil that lurks within us, and stand guard with greater vigilance against it. When I say “within us,” I refer to the world at large, to the intimate society that surrounds us, and to the depths of the individual soul.

 

            We must heighten our consciousness that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and grievously weak: who can know it?” (Yirmiyahu 17:9). On the one hand, in crying out “Who can know it,” the prophet implicitly despairs of knowing man’s heart. On the other hand, the more deceitful man’s heart is, the greater must be our readiness to confront that which perpetually resides within us.

 

            The terrorist attack at the Twin Towers was clearly an exceedingly traumatic event. However, to what measure did this event change the way of life, and world outlook, of the average American? Was his trust in humanity at all undermined, and if so, to what extent? When we consider the fundamental moral, religious, theological and philosophical impact of the event, it seems to me that it is neither unique nor unprecedented. I believe that deeming this event unique is both erroneous and fruitless in terms of advancing moral dialogue. It is liable to lessen our awareness of other phenomena, an awareness that is so central to our heritage and our very existence.

 

            However, this event has one weighty aspect that distinguishes it to a certain degree from other recent tragedies and struggles. This element is not unprecedented, but many thought that it had disappeared from the modern horizon. I refer to the religious aspect of this attack.

 

            In the modern world it is a matter of course that wars are fought in which thousands, and even millions, are killed. Countries are destroyed and nations suffer mortal wounds. The justifications for these battles may be given either in economic or in political-national terms. In generations past, on the other hand, religious wars were quite common. Those were fought in a world that once was, but is no longer: the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, the wars between Catholics and Protestants, the Crusades, and wars in the early years of Islam.

 

Many people thought that religious wars had passed from the world. Some viewed this development favorably, others unfavorably. Some thought that it stemmed from a deficiency in religious fervor, from a spiritual decline. They lamented that people go out to war for oil, but not for the glory of God. Others thought that this stemmed from enlightenment and true tolerance, and not just from convenience.

 

All of a sudden, the present war has a religious background. I do not intend to assess the significance of this point, but it clearly has some bearing. It has suddenly become clear that there is a significant community of zealots who are willing to fight over religion. Those with Marxist tendencies would surely demur, claiming that the supposed religiosity is simply a façade for other motivations. I am not a Marxist, and I do not think it productive to minimize the extent, depth or strength of the other people’s faith. I am willing to accept that a religious motivation underlies this terrorist act.

 

It is hard for many to digest this point. They thought that enlightenment had long ago wiped away such fervor, and they do not understand how to process such fundamentalism. On the other hand, for some religious people the general trend of religious revival, despite its sometimes twisted manifestations, is reassuring: God is no less important than oil.

 

An English literature professor once wrote an article on the development of atheism in the 18th century, in which he claimed that nobody was willing to sacrifice his life for it. Indeed, nobody was asked to do so. Yet now there are people who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for religion. From one perspective this is uplifting. But on the other hand, it is terrifying. Are these the means through which these people wish to advance their beliefs and worldview? Who would not tremble before such people? Who would not be stricken with dread when faced with the danger that this fire may spread? We must confront this approach, recognizing the power of its fervor and seeking to grasp its significance.

 

Our confrontation with this worldview should lead us to examine ourselves and take care that our own fervor not overpower our conscience and our faith. We must redouble our efforts to draw people closer together. As Jews, we proclaim a universal vision, while simultaneously preserving our uniqueness. We pray for and await the day when “the Lord will be one and His name one.” During this season we turn to God in supplication:

 

Reign over the whole universe in Your glory; be exalted over all the earth in Your grandeur; shine forth in Your splendid majesty over all the inhabitants of Your world. May every being know that You have made it; may every creature realize that You have created it.

 

These are very universal terms, but the next sentence moves from the universal to the particular: “May every breathing thing proclaim” not only theological unity, but also that “the Lord God of Israel is king, and His kingdom rules over all.”

 

This formulation, established by the Sages, draws from the visions of Isaiah and Micah. It embraces the universal, eschatological aspiration, while directed through a uniquely Jewish channel – which, at that time, will become the shared vision of all of humanity.

 

And many people shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Yeshayahu 2:3).

 

I know not how Divine providence will direct the paths of humanity, Jewish and general, to arrive at the realization of that vision, to close the gap between history and truth. Such a resolution has not yet appeared on the horizon. We lack the tools – practical and perhaps even conceptual – to bridge the abyss that lies between these worlds. However, as individuals and as a community, as believers and as educators, it is within our hands to try and influence the emphases and the direction. While preserving our uniqueness and our faith, we must try to narrow our differences with the broader world.

 

I am not among those who initiate, or call for, ecumenical activity. But there is much that can be done within one’s own camp. Moslems can do a great deal in their camp, and we can do a great deal in ours. We can try to close the gaps, to diminish the hatred, to bring people together. We are obligated to do this from a human, religious and moral perspective.

 

I opened with a statement that I hope was properly understood, that my words might temper the spirits and reduce the tension that is felt these days. I do not retreat from this, but I wish to close by clarifying one point. On the theoretical plane, we must see this tragedy in it broader historical and religious context. To my mind, much of what has been said in this regard exaggerates the moral and religious significance of this specific event.

 

However, we are not living, and we do not wish to live, solely in a world of theory. We do not wish to live exclusively as theologians or philosophers, even if we are talking about religious and moral philosophy. We experience, and wish to experience, the existential dimension of our being, and this needs to be accorded proper significance. Whatever theoretical perspective or explanation one can advance, anyone who witnessed the horror and destruction, the wickedness and the murder, will be both unwilling and unable to maintain a distance. Whoever experienced this dreadful bereavement, even indirectly, felt shock and inner turmoil, even if these did not lead to a paradigm shift.

 

Exposure to both the suffering and the bravery of 9/11 cannot but increase the human sensitivity of anyone with an open heart. This exposure must intensify our commitment and deepen our determination pursue the good. We must do our best to remember those who were killed; to support those whom they left behind; to build a better world, one that is more trusting and more humane. Especially during these days of reckoning, we cling to the realization of our shared destiny: “a world built by kindness” (Tehillim 89:3).


[1] This adaptation is based on remarks made on September 11, 2002 (5 Tishrei 5763) at a conference in Jerusalem organized by “Mosaica: The Institute for the Study of Religion, Society and State.”  It was published in Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, ed. R. Michael Broyde (New York: K’hal Publishing and Beth Din of America Press, 2011).  We thank the publishers for permission to disseminate this sicha on the VBM.