Rabbi Calls For Soul Searching After Tucson Attacks

The mass shooting in Arizona has prompted national soul searching, with many Americans trying to make sense of the tragedy and what might have contributed to it. In this week's installment of Tell Me More's "Faith Matters" segment, host Michel Martin speaks with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield about the need for self-reflection in coming to terms with the tragedy. Rabbi Hirschield is author of the book, "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism" and a Washington Post columnist.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It occurred to us that faith often fuels strong passions and political discourse. So we thought we'd turn now to a faith leader, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. He's been writing about the Arizona shooting for his Washington Post blog called "For God's Sake." He's also the author of the critically acclaimed book "You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism." And he's with us now from our bureau in Europe. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD (Author, "You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism"): It's good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you were writing that, you appreciate that there is an impulse in the face of something tragic to try to figure out, you know, what happened and try to put it into some context. What's wrong with that?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Nothing's wrong with it. I think the president himself made reference to it in his speech in Arizona. When we are confronted with horrific events, especially ones which seem so senseless, especially ones in which children are murdered simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, as human beings, we need desperately to make sense of that.

In fact, it may be that's what defines us all. Whatever our politics or our beliefs, it may be what defines us as human beings, is our ability to make meaning. And we find meaning in patterns. And so, nothing is wrong with it. But here's the challenge. The first place we often look in the face of a terrible event is, who can we blame? Who is it who will be, if you will, the boogeyman? And I know if I can identify that person or that thing, then I'll be able to rest better tonight because I know who I need to attack in order to make myself safe.

And the two problems with that are that, first of all, those kinds of rushes to judgment about who's to blame, especially in the face of big tragedies, are almost never correct. And maybe even more importantly, they tend to duplicate the very things that we're most upset about. So in the face of speech that many of us deem to be hateful and symbols that many of us feared were deeply dangerous, we ended up lashing out, needing to find someone who we could blame in precisely the same way.

MARTIN: Well, you know, Sarah Palin did make this same point, albeit in a manner that also offended other people. I'll just play what she said for those who are not aware of it. And this is in the context of a much longer video that she posted on her - on YouTube, but this is the piece of it that has gotten a lot of people's attention. Here it is.

(Soundbite of video)

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Author, "Going Rogue"): Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

MARTIN: That specific term, how do you understand that term?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Look, blood libel is a specific term, as you point out, that has historic meaning. It was the charge originally made by medieval Catholics, later adopted by the Protestant churches of Europe. And even to this very day, used in some parts of the Islamic world as well. The charge is that Jews use the blood of non-Jews, often the blood of children, for ritual purposes, especially the preparation of Passover matzah.

Now, it wasn't true then, it isn't true now. But it seems to me that's not the real issue here. The real issue is and the incredible irony in what is an obviously distasteful and inaccurate comparison. It's not that somehow Sarah Palin latched on to this term blood libel and that Jews are specifically aggrieved, because who really cares?

The irony in all this, that I'm sure is lost on Ms. Palin, but shouldn't be lost on the rest of us is that in using the term blood libel, she is actually confirming what those of us who are her detractors would say, namely that the use of untrue words can create genuine physical danger, right?

For the blood libel metaphor to work, not to mention the humor that apparently Ms. Palin now thinks she's Jewish, is that she is the Jew in the metaphor, being attacked unfairly by her detractors. Now, her detractors are using words. No one has threatened her physically that I'm aware of, certainly not journalists. So her claim is that because of the words of others, she is now in physical danger. The irony is that's exactly what people are concerned about her words and her images have said.

So I think the really mature response would have been to say, wow, having been attacked by the journalists, I now realize, they may have been right about me. And what all of us are going to have to do, especially at a moment of tragedy, is look very closely at the language we use and the metaphors we make.

MARTIN: And, finally, in the minute we have left, just a minute, rabbi, how should we go forward, what would be appropriate for all of us, public figures, non-public figures? What would you wish for us to do, going forward?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: I guess there are a couple of things. First of all, is acknowledge that the greater the freedom we possess, the more awesome the responsibility we have. I don't think there's any indication that Sarah Palin or any people who support the use of gun sight imagery are guilty about recently what happened in Tucson. But I think there's plenty of responsibility to go around.

I think what all people really can do, wherever we are politically, is two things. First of all, we can actually be more civil to those around us. That's how culture is created, not by railing about those who we'll never directly speak to, but by speaking differently to those who are near us.

And maybe even more importantly, when it comes to politics, start holding politicians on the left and the right responsible. Start insisting that it's not good enough to advocate for a policy with which we may agree, but that we're going to also hold you accountable for how you do your advocacy. And when advocacy even for a good cause is done in ways that are denigrating or demeaning to others, we will no longer support.

MARTIN: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes the blog, "For God's Sake" for the Washington Post. He's also the author of the book "You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right: Finding Faith without Fanaticism." He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Rabbi, I hope we speak again soon.

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: I hope so. All the best to you.

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