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The Anders Breivik in all of us

07/24/2011

“With 9/11 in America, people could ask, ‘Who are they?’ and could pour their rage out on someone else, but we can’t disavow this person, he’s one of us.”

Anders Romarheim of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies on Anders Breivik, the madman & murderer who shot or blew to smithereens 92 people, many (most?) of whom were teenagers, in his bid to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination, multiculturalism, and liberal modernity.

And the Torah portion we read yesterday, Matot

Moses spoke to the people, saying, Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord’s vengeance.

With Pinchas serving as priest for the campaign, they slew every male. Every single male. The kings as well as the taxi drivers & civil servants & carpenters. The war booty – women, children, trinkets, and beasts – were brought before Moses.  His reaction? You spared the women? Those whores? Go back and kill them all – every male children and every non-virgin female. Go back and finish the job.

This is not metaphor, gang. This is the text. We are commanded to kill and we kill. With our bare hands & the sword. No long-range missiles, no Star Wars computers. Our freaking bare hands. We can wish it away or explain it in terms other than physical destruction — my friend & sister blogger Rachel Barenblat wrote this past week of the Ishbitzer rebbe and his more poetic interpretation of the verses in question. I suggest you read it — perhaps it will offer comfort.

For myself, I keep coming back to this: We can’t disavow this person – he is one of us. One of us, yes, and in us, each one of us, with terrible consequences. Our crazy sense that we’re better than the next person. Our crazier sense that if we don’t get them first, they will get us. That God speaks to us. I wish I could say that I have never harbored fantasies of doing harm to someone else with words or fists or weapons at hand. I wish I could say it with 100% clarity, but I can’t. I’m no Anders Breivik, but I am his kin.

That is the instruction the Torah shares with us, lest we wonder about our difference & superiority. We’re no Anders Breivik, but we are his kin.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    07/24/2011 8:33 pm

    This is an occasion when I really wish we could study torah together and face to face. These comments and Ishbitzer rebbe’s are great, but just the beginning for me.

  2. Sarah Rubin permalink
    07/25/2011 8:07 am

    Powerful and well said as always. You start me on the path of, “what makes me so different from him? I too can think violent thoughts.”

    I think we must ask, “What in society encourages an Anders Breivik, or a Timothy McVey, or any other to hate and to otherize so deeply that those feelings of violence become a reasoned response?” And on the other side, “What in society helps the rest of us to temper our actions, to recognize that violence is not a/the solution?” I don’t think it is entirely the fault of larger society, but I think that there are things that trigger or push individuals over the brink.

    Having these violent words in our Torah, we must encourage a certain kind of interpretation; there are those who “follow Torah” who see these as a continued call to action against perceived enemies (and of course there are those among the enemies of “Israel,” whether people or state, who have a similar narrative against “us”). This is terrifying to me, and leaves me with a deep sense of responsibility to find and teach the kind of meaning you have found — that this means we too have this violent potential in each of us, and that we must be on the lookout for ways to, as the Ishbitzer Rebbe does, radically transform our text and ourselves away from the negative and towards positive, creative imagination.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      07/25/2011 12:54 pm

      I agree that it is entirely not the fault of the larger society – people are born with fine & gentle impulses as well as terrible, bloodthirsty ones. Your questions – what encourages the former or the latter – is the right one, of course, and precisely what our holy texts are meant to get us thinking about. On the other hand, I don’t want to roundly condemn all violent or vengeful tendencies; I actually think they have a place in our lives, but just where that place is will have to wait for another post.

  3. 07/25/2011 11:52 am

    Well-said, Sue. Thank you for this powerful and troubling post. (And thank you also for the shout-out!)

    Some of my teachers call texts which incite violence our “texts of terror.” Every scripture has texts of terror. For me the real question is what we do with them. Pretending that they’re not in our texts — pretending that these impulses never enter our hearts — isn’t, I think, the right answer. Because humanity is capable of violence; and I think the God we imagine is as much in our image as the other way around! But what can we do with these texts, with these impulses, having faced them honestly?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      07/25/2011 12:55 pm

      Yes! We are in God’s image (which isn’t such a pretty face all of the time) and vice versa.

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