Healing on Holy Hill

Authored by: 
Robert A. Rees

On Monday, October 29, 2018, the GTU community held an interreligious service remembering the victims of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Community in Pittsburgh and other victims of violence  and intolerance, and pledging our continuing work toward a pluralistic society in which all lives are cherished. Dr. Robert A. Rees, director of Mormon Studies at the GTU, offered this refection as an op-ed for the East Bay Times. We are pleased to share it here. 

How does one begin to put one’s heart and soul, let alone one’s mind, around the massacre of Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during last week’s Shabbat? Deemed “the deadliest attack on Jews in American history,” it stands as a stain on our sense of ourselves as a nation that welcomes and provides safe haven for those of all faiths. Eleven American Jews shot to death in a sacred space on a sacred day. How does one respond to such an assault on our identity as an open, tolerant, pluralistic society? How do we begin to heal?

A group of believers from the world’s major religions who gathered on “Holy Hill” in Berkeley late Monday afternoon pointed the way. Members of the interfaith community known as Graduate Theological Union, one of the world’s most distinguished schools of higher religious education, gathered to speak, sing, and pray—to share in one another’s grief, to let the light of their respective faiths shine as a beacon against the darkness and hatred that led to such violence.

It was fitting that the main speaker at the event was the newly-appointed President of GTU, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. Rabbi Lehmann spoke of his family heritage and the fact that next month will mark the eightieth anniversary of the burning of the Leipzig synagogue, a year after his father left and came to the United States. He recounted his father’s reluctance to spend money, even on necessities at times, because, as he told his wife, “We have to stay liquid because we might have to leave the United States.” Reflecting on what happened in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Lehmann said, “I am a different Jew today than I was before this happened. I feel sad and threatened, especially because this happened on Shabbat, the day Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel referred to as a scared space: ‘The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our holy of holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.’” Rabbi Lehmann said, “What happened in Pittsburgh was a piercing of that Cathedral in time.”

Rabbi Lehmann spoke of the violence against other sacred spaces, including black churches in the South and Muslim mosques in the Midwest. Others who spoke at the vigil included Dr. David Vásquez-Levy, President of the Pacific School of Religion (PSR);  Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President Starr King School for the Ministry; Dr. Hatem Bazian, co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim undergraduate college in the United States , and Dr. Rita D. Sherma, Director of the GTU's Center for Dharma Studies.

Dr. Bazian said, “There is no other place in the country or the world like Holy Hill. We can be an example of religions that can come together to make a difference.” Dr. Sherma added, “When you have dear friends of other faiths, it changes your life. You cannot see the other as the other at all. They are part of you.”

To those gathered on Holy Hill—Muslims, Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Jews, Hindi, Episcopalians, and many other faiths, Reverend McNatt said: “No matter your religious commitments, they are holy, and we stand with you. No matter your racial identifies, they are holy, and we stand with you. No matter your sexual preferences and gender identities, they are holy, and we stand with you. Love must be the last word, and we are the people called to make that come true.”

Citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from the Birmingham Jail -- “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality”--PSR's Rev. Ann Jefferson led the group in singing, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

Indeed, those of all faiths and those of no faith cannot rest until it comes.

Robert Rees teaches religion and is director of Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union