Naso 5776: Remembering Orlando and Jo Cox MP
My friends, this was the kind of week I would have preferred to stay in bed and read a book in order to disconnect from the World. So much death, so much violence, so much hate. In our Parashah, Parashat Naso, we have the instructions regarding the Sotah, the woman suspicious of being unfaithful to her husband, but without proof of her possible sinful behaviour. She was taken to the priest who would humiliate her publicly and then make her drink “the bitter waters”, a mix of different ingredients that would cause her to die if she was guilty or be harmless if she was innocent. This is a strange case of trial by ordeal in the Jewish tradition and of course not something we feel particularly proud of. It is not only us in modern times though. In the Talmud there is a full tractate about the Sotah, but from the beginning it is possible to read in the tractate how uncomfortable were the rabbis with the whole subject. They couldn’t just erase it from the Torah, it is there. However, using the powerful tools of the Midrash, the rabbis made it very hard to apply in real life and were happy to just dismiss it with the destruction of the Temple. On Sunday night, when we were still marking the Second Day of Shavuot, a gunman in Orlando, United States, attacked a LGBT dance club and started shooting people. At least 49 people were killed; there are still some in critical condition. The murderer, a Muslim man, claimed to be doing this in name of ISIS. His religious views took him to choose a gay club as an objective. He did it in name of God. But forty nine is just a number, these were people. I would like to mention all their names, but it would take a long time. I will share a couple to remind us that these were people, not numbers, who were killed. These were lights, not numbers, who were forever snuffed out. This is Luis Vielma, 22 years old at the time of his death. He worked as a production assistant on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Orlando, so you see him in the picture dressed with a Hogwarts uniform. He loved to dance. His mother said that this happened at a LGBT venue, but Luis wasn’t gay. It didn’t matter. They went to dance and enjoy the music. She told how Luis, born in Florida, lived to play football. The Mexican national team was his passion. He regularly played tricks on his brother, who he loved dearly. “As a Harry Potter nut, he was so happy to have that job,” she said. “He just enjoyed life. Everything he did, he did with joy. Even putting out chairs for a community event – he did it with joy.” Paul Terrel Henry was 41 at the time of his death. He was a caring father of two who loved to dance, play piano and sing, according to his friends and his boyfriend. Francisco Hernandez, Mr Henry’s boyfriend, told a newspaper that the Chicago native’s main priority was to make sure his kids were taken care of. “Such a loving spirit. I’ll always have him in my heart,” said Mr Hernandez, who added that he would most remember Mr Henry for his smile. Bettye Edwards, of Oviedo, told the newspaper that she and Mr Henry started a church briefly and that he had a master’s degree in business from Florida State University and a theological degree. Mr Henry never took a lesson, Ms Edwards said, but he was a talented musician who sang and played the organ and piano. Danielle Biggers, of Orlando, said she worked with Mr Henry as a sales representative at a resort company. “He always would make sure he would say hello,” she said. “He just was over the top and made everybody smile.” I apologise to the other 47 victims that also had faces and stories, may all their memories be a blessing. The hate of the killer was fuelled by his religion and sadly, it is not only in Islam that we find negative messages about LGBT people, but in Christianity too and in Judaism too. There are still too many places in Jewish society were lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender and queer people are not welcome. Still there are parents that are ashamed of their children if they are LGBTQ, how a terrible thing for these children to know they cause their parents shame. Dalia Fleming, a queer activist and volunteer in Keshet UK, said to the Jewish Chronicle: “When I walk into an LGBT club, I breathe. I am queer, I am glittery, I dance, I am myself. These clubs are our safe place. They are home. I felt similar when I worked at an American Reform Jewish summer camp. It introduced me to a Jewish community of all genders, sexualities, races. I grew up in the UK, in a Jewish space that wasn’t inclusive. I didn’t meet a Jewish LGBT person until I was 15. I didn’t meet an LGBT rabbi (or even one who said positive things about being LGBT) until I was 18. I didn’t find a Jewish LGBT community in the UK until I was in my twenties. Our community has, over the past few years and across many denominations, supported the LGBT community. But we can’t be complacent (…). We need our spaces to not just “tolerate” LGBT people, but to include us”. We cannot erase the words of hate from the Torah or the Talmud, not against LGBTQ people nor non-Jews or even not religious Jews. They are part of our tradition. But our tradition is alive and as the rabbis of the Talmud did with the Sotah, we have to use the powerful tools of Midrash to reframe the attitude of Judaism to LGBTQ people. It is not only about tolerating them, or accepting their presence with a smile. We must change our narrative, the principles on which we relate to them with ones of inclusion and love. For us, even if shocking, the events in Orlando feel far, there in the gun-crazy US. For our LGBTQ brothers, sisters and children it feels very close to home. They feel violated, attacked and unsafe. Rabbi Shai Held reminded us this week that the correct Jewish response to them is love so he wrote to them: “Rabbi Akiva tells us that each and every human being is beloved by God because we are—all of us, without exception—created in the image of God. In other words, you don’t need to earn God’s love; it is given to you with your existence, the gift of a loving God. No amount of hatred or bigotry can ever change that simple but stunning fact: as a human being, you matter (…) One of the biggest problems with religion is that people stubbornly (…) reduce God to their own size; they imagine that God loves the same people they love, and that God hates the people they hate. This is not just insidious theology; it’s actually idolatry, because people are just worshiping a blown up version of themselves. So let me say it simply: God’s love transcends all of that. When your parents reject you, God loves you; when your friends or classmates make fun of you, God loves you; when your priest, minister, imam, or rabbi tells you that you are an abomination, God loves you; when politicians cater to people’s basest prejudices, God loves you. No matter how many times and in how many ways people make you feel less than human, God knows otherwise, and God loves you. When you feel frightened, or abandoned, or humiliated, I hope the unshakeable conviction that God loves you can help hold you and enable you to persevere. But religion is not the only reason to hate. Even if it still not a 100% clear what were the real motives of the killer, the Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, age 41, wife of Brendan and mother to two young children, was murdered yesterday for her political ideas. Whether it was for her support to the campaign for the UK to remain in the EU, or because of her strong ideas against racism, fascism and her support to Islamic and other immigrants; for whatever reason, her killer decided that she deserved to die. As Jews we are too familiar with murder for political reasons. We fast once a year for the murder of Gedaliah ben Ahikam at the end of the First Temple period by fanatics that saw him as a traitor. Most of us are old enough to remember very well the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a Jewish fanatic that also saw him as a traitor. Jo Cox was as well murdered by a fanatic that probably saw her as a traitor to his vision of England. We don’t have to agree with somebody to mourn his or her death, to despise violence against her or cry against hate and fanaticism. Jo Cox joined in 2015 the Labour friends of Palestine, now to be a friend of Palestine doesn’t necessarily mean to be an enemy of Israel, but I am pretty sure we would disagree on many points and I still mourn her death, I am sad for the violence and hate that took her from us, and first of all from her family. Her husband Brendan said: “Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo. She believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.” Hate doesn’t have a place in my Judaism and my beliefs. Brendan’s invitation to fight against hatred is one we all should accept. Love of everyone, baseless love, love just because. Love of those different from us, whether by race, religion, political ideas, sexual orientation or whatever reason. Love, love, love and only love is the path. May the memories of the 49 victims in Orlando become a blessing to us, may the memory of Jo Cox become a blessing to us. A blessing by helping us reject hate and embrace love of each other. May they rest in peace.