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My “Jewish Thoughts” by Lee Weismann: To the Heart of 9/11

My “Jewish Thoughts” by Lee Weismann: To the Heart of 9/11

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.

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20 comments

  1. What a coincidence! I started studying hebrew yesternight; I’m still on the alphabets, some similarity to the Arabic huruf.

    I did come across the shema; I refrained from clicking the icon. It is still LA ILAHA ILLA ALLAH for me.

    My twitter page contains some interesting links to ‘veterans today’.

    Umm Sulaim

    http://mobile.twitter.com/umm_sulaim

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  2. An interesting post. I know little to nothing about modern Judaic practices. I’ve read the O.T., and know some of the stories of the Children of Israel – mainly via Quranic tafseer admittedly! As a Muslim, I believe that Jews are People of Scripture; their history is my history, though I don’t have Semitic roots. Reading the similarities in our spiritual traditions is refreshing, but not at all surprising. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your perspective with us! I enjoyed reading the whole article but I found the last sentence to be especially beautiful.

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  4. Lee, first of all, thanks for taking on such a difficult topic at a time like this and for answering it so eloquently and intelligently. Hena, you and the Muslim Matters team are not only courageous — you are deeply empathetic and I am grateful that your leadership is helping expand so many worldviews.

    On a personal level, it is difficult for me to identify with Lee’s sentiments. Perhaps because I am a Reform Jew (and a secular one at that) and perhaps because I’m too close to the issue. I was outside and on the edge of the Ground Zero zone when I saw the 2nd plane hit. And no, I don’t feel like going into detail.

    As a Reform Jew I find it difficult to fathom why anyone — Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Pagan, Church of the Subgenius, whatever — would connect an atrocity like that to ANY religious tradition. Not everyone agrees with this but in my opinion, 9/11 was a hate crime against the United States.
    Here is a link to a list of Muslims killed in the 9/11 attacks. That doesn’t even take into account the Muslim American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or the Muslim Iraqi and Afghan civilians. I certainly wouldn’t expect a Christian (moderate or religious) to try to draw parallels between the faith they practice and what the Klu Klux Klan is about. Hate crimes are hate crimes. People who commit hate crimes are narcissistic, socio-pathic idiots who would worship the New York Stock Exchange ticker if it promised power and an identity.

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  5. Susanna,
    I very much appreciate your comments. I think most secular Americans might well dismiss the religious ideas of “socio-pathic Idiots” as simply by-products of their madness. I am suggesting that the connections between religious ideas and such violence are more complicated. I think many secular Americans find it hard to appreciate the emotional appeal and power of religious ideas in general. I fear that our inability to understand the thinking of religious folks (both positively and negatively- on both sides of the coin I described) has impeded our ability to understand much of the rest of the world.
    It is probably not a coincidence (to use your example) that many Ku Klux Klan members were and are self-identified Bible believing Christians. The outfits, the burning crosses, the talk of spiritual election are a twisted reflection of the crusader heritage of militant Christianity which most Christians have largely disowned. Still the ideas persist in these strange forms.
    Based on your own experience at Ground Zero, I can completely understand your discomfort with what sounds like lending “reason” to the actions of madmen. I am more than a little uncomfortable with it myself. I think there is a truth to what I say, but its a truth that hurts me as well.

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  6. In this article you state that you believe that God created everything is a good and evil opposite. Now you stated that your prayer led you to some form of euphoria. You said that if one enters a state where this euphoric feel becomes too great the person will expire in what you called a self-sacrifice.

    then you go onto state that there are those who have a self-sacrifice for God and there are those who do it for a false god in the guise of the one true God.

    Now , is it that you subtly tried to state that Allah azza wa jall is the false god? Please clarify.

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  7. Abu Sinan/Marcer Spring

    I am a proud Muslim fan of Reb Lee. As always his words are straight to the point and hit right to the heart of things.

    Allah Ma3ak ya Lee!

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  8. When I say “appreciate” in this context, I mean in the sense of “to understand the significance of”. I may appreciate how much something means to you without sharing your sentiment or thinking you are right in placing value on it. It is important for secular people to understand the way in which religious ideas and concepts are compelling to others even if they (the secular folks) can’t relate to it. If understanding leads to respect all the better. I hope that clarifies things.
    kol tuv (all the best)
    Lee

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  9. Susanna,
    My goal here as in my occupation as a teacher is to get folks to think not to get folks to think like me.
    I wish you a wonderful new year
    -Lee

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  10. Abu Sumaiyah,

    What I was suggesting is that some people will substitute THEIR IDEA of G-d in place of Allah (swt). This does not reflect in anyway on the absolute unity and perfection of Allah (swt) only on the imperfection of some who claim to serve Him in ways which are actually totally contrary to His will.
    kol tuv (all the best)
    Lee

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  11. So does that apply to the State of Israel? Or just Muslims?

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  12. I’ll let Lee answer (if different), but I think his position is to keep Israel conflict out of the discussion, as it drives difficult and heated politics into the conversation. That can then derail the entire discussion.

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  13. I am not an expert in politics and I really do not want to derail the conversation with political talk. I will say that I don’t have very high moral expectations of any “state”. They are run by politicians who reflect the wills of conflicting constituencies. I do have high moral expectations of people, of ALL people, equally. Any person of any religion can fall into the trap of fanaticism and false worship that I described in the essay. I am genuinely hurt Abu Samaiyah that you would have to ask me that question, the implication being that I am going to have some kind of double standard. It feels to me that both of your comments have had very little to do with what I actually said and are instead reactions to who I am, a Jew, and whatever that represents for you. My relationship with the Muslim community, including writing on this blog is the result of much soul searching and re-evaluation of my attitudes and presuppositions. I encourage you to do the same kind of soul searching. I have found a new world of friendship and respect. I hope you do too.
    in peace
    -Lee

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  14. Thanks, Lee. I appreciate –and am grateful for– the humanity, empathy and humility you are extending to interfaith discourse. I stand by my position, though.

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