By Lee Weismann exclusive to MuslimMatters.
Lee is a high school teacher in Irvine CA. He tweets inspirational words and reflections at JihadiJew and blogs here under the same interesting handle “JihadiJew”. His thoughts on Ramadan were amazing, make sure to read them.
I was asked to write a “Jewish-American” response in remembrance of 9/11/. I am afraid that my response to 9/11 was and is a very idiosyncratic. I would hesitate to call it a “Jewish-American” response. It is rather a personal response that is nevertheless rooted in Jewish thought.
When the first plane hit the tower, I was leading prayers. Our little synagogue in LA was crowded with an eclectic mix Chassidically-oriented North African Sephardic Jews, Lubavitcher Chassidim and homeless people who lingered after collecting alms because we had free food and we were polite to them. The prayer that day was unusually electric and passionate. As a prayer leader I was “on” that day and everyone went along with me. It was powerful. In fact, it was perhaps the most powerful prayer I remember, in that now long gone synagogue. The prayers came to an end and a strange energy took over the room. The tower had been hit. Though I was told what had happened, it took moments to register. Then I got it.
Like all Americans, I was shocked and enraged by the barbarity of the attack. At the same time I had the very vivid realization that though I could never understand or excuse this outrage, in some way I understood the twisted thinking of the attackers. It was not their politico-religious agenda that I understood. What I understood was that in both Judaism and Islam there is a powerful inner drive for self-sacrifice and that it was that drive which had gone tragically and disastrously wrong.
There have never been Jewish suicide bombers. Nevertheless, Judaism is no stranger to the concept of the sacrifice of the self (mesirat nefesh) of giving your all in the service of G-d. In the middle ages, Jewish tradition extolled the virtue of dying “al kiddush Hashem” for the sanctification of G-d’s name, allowing oneself to be killed rather than convert or recant ones Judaism. Only a few minutes before the plane crashed into the towers, I had been visualizing myself engulfed with flames, dying as I sanctified G-d’s name, proclaiming out loud with my dying breath “Hear O Israel, The Lord our G-d, The Lord is One!” This is an spiritual exercise of the 18th century Chassidic master Rebbe Elimelech of Lysansk described in his famous “Tzetel Katan” (the “Little Note”), to be done as a meditation on the words of the Shema, the proclamation of Jewish faith in the absolute unity of God. Reb Elimelech warns that if a person were to become too proficient in this meditation they could expire from the effort through a self-inflicted state of self-nullification. I believe that the 9/11 attackers carried with them a grossly distorted version of this self-same concept of self-sacrifice. They had become the sinister carnival mirror reflection of the very same spiritual longing that I had experienced so powerfully just a few moments before the attack.
The Jewish mystical classic, The Zohar, teaches us that “G-d created the world with this opposite that.” That is, that holiness and the “other side” of evil would be reflections of one another. What you find in one you will find in the other. On one side you will find great saints and scholars and on the other wicked demagogues and slick hucksters of evil ideas. On one side you will find the noble struggle with the lower self and on the other wanton violence against straw-man enemies. And lastly, on the side of holiness you will find the urge to nullify oneself to the ultimately real existence of G-d and on the side of evil you will find an excuse to vent murderous rage through self-sacrificial suicide to a false god in the guise of the One True G-d.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” -Yirmiyahu / Jeremiah 17:9-10
To me, 9/11 is a reminder of the deceitful fragility of the human heart. Though this was the act of a few crazed fanatics, it also exposed a basic human weakness, a disease which is perhaps endemic to the human soul that confuses the holy with the unholy, the righteous with the unrighteous. For people of faith, particularly for Muslims and for Jews who share this deep notion of self-sacrifice, 9/11 is a reminder to give ourselves over only to that which is truly good and wholesome, to nullify our wills only to that of the Creator of the Universe and even then only in the service of Life.