Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A Response to the Massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church

06/24/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

I arrived in Israel Monday afternoon, having left New York on Father's Day.

"Sorry to disturb you on Father's Day," said a colleague at the beginning of her phone call on Sunday morning, momentarily confusing me. I was so consumed with my forthcoming trip and the events of this past week that I had completely forgotten to anticipate the annual outpouring of paternal appreciation from my wife and three daughters.

At the airport, wishes of "Happy Father's Day" abounded, giving me an uneasy feeling, as if I had missed my own birthday party. My sense of dislocation only intensified on the journey to the Holy Land. Throughout my flight, I felt agitated to be leaving the country in the aftermath of the massacre allegedly committed by the 21 year-old self-styled white supremacist Dylann Roof at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.

An act such as this mandates a prolonged and proactive response. The Charleston massacre brought our nation together, eliciting a great outcry from faith leaders, television hosts, celebrities, communal organizations, humanitarians, educators, houses of worship and more. Within hours of the event, my Inbox was flooded with statements, proclamations, announcements of vigils, links to news briefs and updates on the situation, the most heartbreaking of which were biographies of the nine innocent souls who perished while engaged in prayer.

As I write, my colleagues in Conservative Judaism are planning a Shabbat of solidarity with local African American Churches.

There are so many angles to this particular tragedy: the fact that it had been so meticulously planned by someone so young; the fact that Roof nearly changed his mind because the church-goers were so "nice," as he told a police officer; that our shoddy regulations governing the purchasing of guns may have helped enable this terrible crime; the shocking persistence of the Confederate flag and all that it stands for; the knowledge of the violent hatred that one can harbor for strangers.

This single act of devastation by Roof -- planned and carried out at a historically black church -- has shaken those of us who have worked for tolerance, collaboration, civil rights and peaceful coexistence. The shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church shattered any illusion that violent racism died with the last century; it chills us deeply, offering a glimpse of what simmers beneath the surface of our nation.

It galvanizes us to pry open our parochial communal concerns -- the resurgence of global anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, the existential threat facing Israel from Iran and other regimes -- and commit to combating racism on American soil as well.

It reminds us that being Jewish means converting the lessons of our history into empathy.

Occurring in the aftermath of the discovery of dangerous and often deadly bias against black boys and men, it is proof positive that America has a big problem.

Saturday night I watched the film Selma with my daughter Hannah and told her, powerful as the film was, it offered a sanitized version of what really took place in the American South before the era of Civil Rights, realizing the limited truth of my words as they left my mouth.

American racism is alive and well. And not just in the south.

A teaching from Genesis Rabba about the creation of Adam appears in my minds' eye. It is about fathers.

"Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world; furthermore, so no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, 'Our father was born first'; and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of humankind to emanate from one type."

This conversation teaches us a core Jewish value: all of humanity is the offspring of Adam and Eve, who were created in the image of God.

There is one God and we are all His children. No one is the child of a Greater or Lesser God.

This teaching makes the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina personal. It tears away at the fabric of each of our human family because we are all children of the same God. This tragedy is a human tragedy. The displaying of the Confederate flag which promoted the institution of slavery based on the understanding of black people as inferior, rips away at the fabric of our American society. The cavalier sale of guns to racists, haters and unstable people sabotages our chance to create a safe and civil society.

Though it was wrenching to leave America in the aftermath of the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, being in Israel gives me a 6,000-mile view. I think about the shattering of my naïve illusions and the responsibility that comes with sudden clear-sightedness. From the vantage point of Jerusalem, one more teaching from our tradition comes to me, an economical verse in Deuteronomy, crystalline in its simplicity, calling upon the world's conscience: Justice, justice shall you pursue.