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“Is Anything New under the Sun?”
Reflections on the First Anniversary of the Attack on the Twin Towers1
Based on an address by
Adapted by Aviad Hacohen with Reuven Ziegler
Translated by David Strauss with Dov Karoll
On this date now identified with tragedy, we pause for reflection,
hopefully to attain some spiritual meaning and growth in this period of
introspection. Considering the trauma, suffering and evil of extraordinary
proportions and intensity, it is natural that this tragedy should reverberate both
in America and throughout the world. Yet I wish to devote my remarks to
tempering somewhat our reactions to the moral and religious consequences
of the event.
I hope that my words will not be misunderstood, and that they will not
be construed as reflecting a lack of sensitivity. I would not, God forbid, want to
make light of the tragedy of the murder of a single individual or of the anguish
of a single family that suffered a loss. How much more so, when we are
dealing with an atrocity of such horrendously vast proportions, must the
thousands of afflicted families be accorded the appropriate sympathy and
On the human level, the pain is terrible. Identifying with it is not only a
duty imposed by the conscience, but also a visceral, instinctive reaction. That
being said, I would nevertheless resist the notion that the evil committed on
that bitter day marks a revolutionary change in our world from either a
religious or a moral perspective. In keeping with this theme, I have titled this
address, “Is anything new under the sun?”
Taking a step back, it is worth noting that, sadly, the confrontation with
evil – even evil as vast as this – is familiar to us. The questions raised by such
tragedies are difficult and penetrating. The absence of satisfactory answers to
these questions is an age-old challenge to people of faith.
1 This adaptation is based on remarks made on September 11, 2002 (5 Tishrei 5763) at a
conference in Jerusalem organized by “Mosaica: The Institute for the Study of Religion,
Society and State.” It was published in Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on
September 11th, ed. R. Michael Broyde (New York: K’hal Publishing and Beth Din of America
Press, 2011). We thank the publishers for permission to disseminate this sicha on the VBM.
With all our pain and sorrow, we must understand and remember that
no one can provide easy answers regarding Divine providence and the
Holocaust, in whose shadow we still live. We must recall how dumbfounded
we stood, and stand, contemplating the depth of the evil attained by a
developed, cultured society. We must not forget that phenomenon, so
unfathomable and incomprehensible, of God’s hiding of His face from the
A year ago, we were witness to a scene that would have been
unthinkable even in our most nightmarish imagination. And yet, and without
dulling in the least our sensitivity to the value of every individual’s life, we must
acknowledge that this terrorist attack is utterly dwarfed by the blood spilled
upon European soil over the previous century.
What are the moral and religious ramifications of this event? In great
measure, the answer to this question depends on the attitudes one held on
“the day before,” on the 10th of September, 2001.
For theological and moral liberals, the events of September 11th surely
came as a terrible shock. These groups had internalized the ethos, so
prevalent in America in the last two centuries, that life is characterized by
pleasantness, success and prosperity. Those who overlooked the tragic
aspect of human life surely suffered a shocking blow - both conceptual and
emotional – that threatened to undermine their worldview.
A similar shock presumably befell another group beholden to an
entirely different perspective: those people of faith who thought they
understood fully the ways of Providence. If they had managed to forget what
happened in Europe in the previous century, the events of 9/11 presented a
renewed challenge to their outlook.
For people who thought along either of these lines on the eve of
September 11th, the danger of losing faith in man, or an erosion of faith in
God, respectively, is a real one. Yet, no such cataclysmic metamorphosis in
thought is demanded of one who holds a wholly different approach to life. No
such shock befalls one who has internalized – conceptually, existentially and
experientially – the idea that “the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth”
(Bereishit 8:21), as our Sages understood it. No reorientation is required for
one deeply aware of man’s dangerous potential. One who is cognizant that
human history, and especially Jewish history, is drenched with blood, surely
shares in the agony but is not overwhelmed by shock and bewilderment.
Does history have religious meaning? For a believing Jew, the answer
is clear: it certainly does. We firmly believe that God is immanently involved in
the human world. Yet, this says nothing of our ability to offer explanations,
especially detailed and focused ones, as to why any particular event took
place. To offer such explanations involves a great deal of chutzpa,
tendentiousness and arrogance.
There have been those who have professed to know the answers to
such questions. Balaam proclaimed that he “knows the knowledge of the Most
High” (Bamidbar 24:16), and our Sages indeed describe him as a great
prophet. Nevertheless, the Gemara (Berakhot 7a) asks: “Now, he did not even
know the mind of his animal; how then could he know the mind of the Most
High?” Members of certain schools of thought should take these words to
Do we, as Jews, see man through rose-colored lenses, with the
optimism and sense of progress that characterized the nineteenth century? Or
do we see man through dark glasses, viewing him pessimistically as a corrupt
creature with no chance of redemption?
I believe that Judaism adopts a middle position. On the one hand, we
do not share Rousseau’s romantic outlook that views man as a wonderful
creature by nature, corrupted only by external circumstances. Our Sages
interpreted the verse, “The impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth”
(Bereishit 8:21), as teaching that one is born with the “evil impulse,” while the
“good impulse” only takes effect from the time one reaches thirteen years of
age (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 3:5). From birth, the evil impulse fills man with
egotism, aggressiveness and selfishness. In contrast, the good impulse is
inculcated through a process of socialization and education, always struggling
to catch up to the evil impulse, which has a thirteen-year head-start.
On the other hand, Judaism certainly does not share the distrust of
man that characterizes certain streams in Christianity. These branches of
Christianity see man as corrupt by his very nature, utterly incapable of change
and spiritual ascent. Rather, Judaism shares the view of classical religious
humanism, according to which man is not inherently good but is capable of
great good, provided that he is trained properly.
God’s goodness and grace are pillars of our faith. How, then, can we
account for evil? It is certainly true that “the impulse of man’s heart is evil from
his youth”; our Sages have told us that man’s evil impulse renews itself every
day (Kiddushin 30b). God has endowed man with free will, which sometimes
goes unbridled and has catastrophic results. I have been strongly influence by
the teachings of my revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, who
refrained, categorically, from providing answers as to why given events took
place. I do not know the extent to which this was specifically because of the
Holocaust; I presume that on principle he would have advocated standing
humbly before the Almighty in any case. This attitude was deeply ingrained in
the Rav’s personality and thinking. This humility dictates the conclusion that
we are incapable of understanding Divine providence. But, at the same time,
we are capable of responding to catastrophe – and thus also obligated to do
As such, faced with tragedy, it is our duty to respond. To whatever
extent possible, we must draw the appropriate conclusions and continue on
our way, determined as before. Our goal must be not to hobble along as
wounded survivors, but to press forward with renewed rigor. The ideal
response is a combination of humility and struggle. On the one hand, we
accept God’s judgment. But on the other hand, we respond with readiness
and determination – to rise up and overcome.
We know not why these events happen. But when evil manifests itself,
we must confront it. At one level, we must confront its perpetrators directly – a
realm beyond my purview. Leaving aside direct confrontation at the practical,
political or social plane, this manifestation of evil demands that we sharpen
our awareness of the evil that lurks within us, and stand guard with greater
vigilance against it. When I say “within us,” I refer to the world at large, to the
intimate society that surrounds us, and to the depths of the individual soul.
We must heighten our consciousness that “The heart is deceitful above
all things, and grievously weak: who can know it?” (Yirmiyahu 17:9). On the
one hand, in crying out “Who can know it,” the prophet implicitly despairs of
knowing man’s heart. On the other hand, the more deceitful man’s heart is,
the greater must be our readiness to confront that which perpetually resides
within us.
The terrorist attack at the Twin Towers was clearly an exceedingly
traumatic event. However, to what measure did this event change the way of
life, and world outlook, of the average American? Was his trust in humanity at
all undermined, and if so, to what extent? When we consider the fundamental
moral, religious, theological and philosophical impact of the event, it seems to
me that it is neither unique nor unprecedented. I believe that deeming this
event unique is both erroneous and fruitless in terms of advancing moral
dialogue. It is liable to lessen our awareness of other phenomena, an
awareness that is so central to our heritage and our very existence.
However, this event has one weighty aspect that distinguishes it to a
certain degree from other recent tragedies and struggles. This element is not
unprecedented, but many thought that it had disappeared from the modern
horizon. I refer to the religious aspect of this attack.
In the modern world it is a matter of course that wars are fought in
which thousands, and even millions, are killed. Countries are destroyed and
nations suffer mortal wounds. The justifications for these battles may be given
either in economic or in political-national terms. In generations past, on the
other hand, religious wars were quite common. Those were fought in a world
that once was, but is no longer: the Thirty Years War in the 17 th century, the
wars between Catholics and Protestants, the Crusades, and wars in the early
years of Islam.
Many people thought that religious wars had passed from the world.
Some viewed this development favorably, others unfavorably. Some thought
that it stemmed from a deficiency in religious fervor, from a spiritual decline.
They lamented that people go out to war for oil, but not for the glory of God.
Others thought that this stemmed from enlightenment and true tolerance, and
not just from convenience.
All of a sudden, the present war has a religious background. I do not
intend to assess the significance of this point, but it clearly has some bearing.
It has suddenly become clear that there is a significant community of zealots
who are willing to fight over religion. Those with Marxist tendencies would
surely demur, claiming that the supposed religiosity is simply a façade for
other motivations. I am not a Marxist, and I do not think it productive to
minimize the extent, depth or strength of the other people’s faith. I am willing
to accept that a religious motivation underlies this terrorist act.
It is hard for many to digest this point. They thought that enlightenment
had long ago wiped away such fervor, and they do not understand how to
process such fundamentalism. On the other hand, for some religious people
the general trend of religious revival, despite its sometimes twisted
manifestations, is reassuring: God is no less important than oil.
An English literature professor once wrote an article on the
development of atheism in the 18th century, in which he claimed that nobody
was willing to sacrifice his life for it. Indeed, nobody was asked to do so. Yet
now there are people who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for religion.
From one perspective this is uplifting. But on the other hand, it is terrifying.
Are these the means through which these people wish to advance their beliefs
and worldview? Who would not tremble before such people? Who would not
be stricken with dread when faced with the danger that this fire may spread?
We must confront this approach, recognizing the power of its fervor and
seeking to grasp its significance.
Our confrontation with this worldview should lead us to examine
ourselves and take care that our own fervor not overpower our conscience
and our faith. We must redouble our efforts to draw people closer together. As
Jews, we proclaim a universal vision, while simultaneously preserving our
uniqueness. We pray for and await the day when “the Lord will be one and His
name one.” During this season we turn to God in supplication:
Reign over the whole universe in Your glory; be exalted over all
the earth in Your grandeur; shine forth in Your splendid majesty
over all the inhabitants of Your world. May every being know that
You have made it; may every creature realize that You have
created it.
These are very universal terms, but the next sentence moves from the
universal to the particular: “May every breathing thing proclaim” not only
theological unity, but also that “the Lord God of Israel is king, and His kingdom
rules over all.”
This formulation, established by the Sages, draws from the visions of
Isaiah and Micah. It embraces the universal, eschatological aspiration, while
directed through a uniquely Jewish channel – which, at that time, will become
the shared vision of all of humanity.
And many people shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to
the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and
He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for
out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from
Jerusalem (Yeshayahu 2:3).
I know not how Divine providence will direct the paths of humanity,
Jewish and general, to arrive at the realization of that vision, to close the gap
between history and truth. Such a resolution has not yet appeared on the
horizon. We lack the tools – practical and perhaps even conceptual – to
bridge the abyss that lies between these worlds. However, as individuals and
as a community, as believers and as educators, it is within our hands to try
and influence the emphases and the direction. While preserving our
uniqueness and our faith, we must try to narrow our differences with the
broader world.
I am not among those who initiate, or call for, ecumenical activity. But
there is much that can be done within one’s own camp. Moslems can do a
great deal in their camp, and we can do a great deal in ours. We can try to
close the gaps, to diminish the hatred, to bring people together. We are
obligated to do this from a human, religious and moral perspective.
I opened with a statement that I hope was properly understood, that my
words might temper the spirits and reduce the tension that is felt these days. I
do not retreat from this, but I wish to close by clarifying one point. On the
theoretical plane, we must see this tragedy in it broader historical and
religious context. To my mind, much of what has been said in this regard
exaggerates the moral and religious significance of this specific event.
However, we are not living, and we do not wish to live, solely in a world
of theory. We do not wish to live exclusively as theologians or philosophers,
even if we are talking about religious and moral philosophy. We experience,
and wish to experience, the existential dimension of our being, and this needs
to be accorded proper significance. Whatever theoretical perspective or
explanation one can advance, anyone who witnessed the horror and
destruction, the wickedness and the murder, will be both unwilling and unable
to maintain a distance. Whoever experienced this dreadful bereavement, even
indirectly, felt shock and inner turmoil, even if these did not lead to a paradigm
Exposure to both the suffering and the bravery of 9/11 cannot but
increase the human sensitivity of anyone with an open heart. This exposure
must intensify our commitment and deepen our determination pursue the
good. We must do our best to remember those who were killed; to support
those whom they left behind; to build a better world, one that is more trusting
and more humane. Especially during these days of reckoning, we cling to the
realization of our shared destiny: “a world built by kindness” (Tehillim 89:3).
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