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  • Max Stearns

The Gossip Pillow

An old story: A tearful man finds his Rebbe and tells him that he has committed the great sin of gossiping against a member of their community. What can he do? The wise Rebbe instructs him that repentance requires several steps. First, he must apologize and try to make amends with the victim, and second, after doing so, he must take a feather pillow to the top of a hill on a windy day. Once there, he must release the feathers into a strong gust. The man takes these steps and then returns to the Rebbe. The Rebbe then instructs the man on the final step: go back and recapture all the feathers. (Another version here).

In the aftermath of yesterday’s tragic shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I am beyond sadness, beyond anger, and beyond grief. This one hits too close to home. Although I'm not particularly religious, and although I go less often than perhaps I should, I enjoy attending my own conservative shul, in Baltimore, on Shabbat mornings. I also like to arrive on time, as did the victims. As a community, we celebrate simchas, tragedies, holidays, and just the passing of time. Our members care deeply about each other, and also about the non-Jewish communities in which we reside. Our shul is in a predominantly African American neighborhood, and I know, truly in my heart, that were such a horrific event ever to take place at my shul, our surrounding friends and neighbors would be as shocked and saddened as if this happened in one of their own churches or schools.

It is hard to think of tragedy past the loss of eleven lives cut too short or past the harm to six seriously wounded victims, which in both instances included not only congregants, but also first responders. And yet, to me this shooting was accompanied by an added layer of tragedy. Immediately in my social media feeds, and even in linked print media, I witnessed Trump defenders and never-Trump apologists, Jews among them, state that it was unacceptable to respond politically to this tragic event. Despite ironically doing just that, these persons claimed that it was neither appropriate nor fair to suggest any blameworthiness on the part of the present administration for sowing a culture of hatred. These posts are part of a larger pattern that I have observed since the Trump candidacy began. They take the form of an endless series of claims seeking to demonstrate that any anti-Semitic incidents were statistically or historically incidental, that the candidacy and administration embraced Jews even within Trump’s inner circle, and that any claims about dog whistling to anti-Semites were contrived.

I’m not interested, for now, in arguing the merits of these claims. I’ll simply stipulate, for the sake of argument, that each of these Trumpian defenses are somehow valid. But doing so leads me to ask: What are we to make of it? Are we supposed to assume that Trump’s vile speech against so many individuals and against so many groups—Muslims, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, Hondurans and Guatemalans, specified African American leaders, too many women to count, and the list goes on and on and on—will be cabined so as to avoid any hatred spillover against Jews? And are we to understand that Trump’s base is so nuanced that members pay unerring attention to which persons or groups to love and hate (or even to body slam)? And does, or should, it ultimately matter if the perpetrator in Pittsburgh criticized Trump on social media for holding too near his Jewish relatives and advisors?

Let’s assume, again for the sake of argument, that Trump’s supporters are that subtle. In my world that would make the position of Trump’s Jewish defenders more, not less, reprehensible. As a child, I had always been taught that the most important lesson of being part of a victimized community was to ensure that what has happened to us does not happen to others. The lesson never was to take perverse pride in alone being off the hook. About two years ago, I stopped attending a gym at a Jewish Community Center after an intense argument with an Orthodox Jewish man, who had become a friend and who I learned supported Trump. I argued with him, citing the famous Lutheran Pastor Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller’s “First they came after . . . .” The argument ended when my friend countered with: “At least they aren’t coming after me.” I was incensed then, and I am all the more so now. Members of my clan have an added responsibility to call out hate, not a privilege to hide behind a shield while others are scorned. And I want to be clear about this. That responsibility does not arise from some instrumental sensibility. Although I appreciate Niemöller’s sentiment, there remains a moral problem. As Jews especially it is our obligation to stand first and viscerally against hate, not for instrumental reasons, and not expecting repayment in kind. No. We have this obligation for the simple reason that exercising it is the right thing to do. It is the Jewish thing to do.

If feathers represent gossip, hatred demands a more damning metaphor. When we plant the seeds of hate, those looking to do so will affirmative seek out the worst stories they can find. These can be distortions of truth, contrived fictions, or something in between. And they might not target the limited victims that those purveying hatred imagine. Persons seeking hate aren’t so careful. The problem goes beyond our inability to recapture what the wind has spread. It is all the more challenging to recapture feathers taken by those who seek to cause harm.

An updated story: A law student comes to his professor after a torts lecture discussing non-negligent precautions, and he tells her the following: When he was young, quite by accident, he caused a serious injury, and he was never caught or blamed. The victim, thankfully, fully recovered and her family moved away. Last he heard, she was doing well, although he lost touch many years ago. He never told anyone, but the lecture revived the pain. What can he do? The professor recollects the story of a pillow she once heard in shul, thinks for a moment, and then says:

“If you can, find the victim and apologize. But even if you can’t, here’s what you can do. Try to be more mindful. Look for opportunities to save others from harm. Alert those who create unnecessary risks, and alert those who risk becoming victims. Be better; help others.”

Perhaps no one can recapture feathers spread, by accident or design, over the course of a lifetime. But we can set an example for others. We can discourage others from spreading gossip or, worse, from planting the seeds of hate. We can call it out when we see it, and we can look to protect those who will be harmed. In that modest way, we can help make the world a better place. Those of us who are Jewish hold a special responsibility to do so. The events in Pittsburgh should be a stark reminder why.

At the end of the reading, when the Torah is restored to the Ark, it is customary to recite this passage from Proverbs 3: "Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." I can no longer say it, at least in that form. All religions are capable of perversion; Judaism is no exception. I realize that it is audacious for this law professor to attempt rewriting Proverbs. Even so, here is my attempted fix, retaining both meter and rhythm, hoping not to disrupt others as they daven: "I pray her ways are pleasantness, and that her paths are peace."

This post is dedicated to the following:

Daniel Stein, 71

Joyce Fienberg, 75

Richard Gottfried, 65

Rose Mallinger, 97

Jerry Rabinowitz, 66

Cecil Rosenthal, 59

David Rosenthal, 54 (brothers)

Bernice Simon, 84

Sylvan Simon, 86 (husband and wife)

Melvin Wax, 88

Irving Younger, 69

It is also dedicated to those who were injured and to the first responders. May the lives of those who were lost too early forever be a blessing.

(Special thanks to Rabbi Dan Wolpe for a helpful read.)

I welcome your comments.

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