Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Lignum vitae in medio paradisi
Last Saturday I got a very special gift. Three of our beautiful granddaughters—the Fleming-Benite sisters, Sophia, Lulu, and Cora—made a special trip down from lower Manhattan. They were accompanied by Sophia’s delightful boyfriend, Raymond. Their mission was to bring cheer to their convalescent grandfather, and they did this in an ebullient fashion with various forms of highjinks and stimulating conversation. It was actually Cora’s fourteenth birthday, and since I was temporarily unable to come to her, she came to me. It’s not that a group of vital young New York women don’t have other options for an overcast Saturday, incidentally. This was a gesture of pure, generous love that’s not for sale in any store.
Wherever today two or three young people are gathered together, there will you have also a sufficiency of smart phones, tools needed for tracking the scores of athletic contests in progress, for retrieving the menus of Chinese take-out restaurants, and for numerous other requirements of modern life. Thus it was that there came leaking into our little idyll the electronic dribble of news—bad news, very bad news. A madman in Pittsburgh had just shot to death a number of people gathered for worship in a house of prayer called the “Tree of Life”. The number of victims was at that time still uncertain, and there was little information about the murderer beyond the fact that the police had captured him alive, though not before he had wounded some of them. Before beginning the slaughter he was reported to have said “All Jews must die!”
All Jews must die. It is theoretically possible, I suppose, to accept that statement as a philosophical summary of lugubrious truth, a recognition of the universality of human mortality. “Golden lads and girls all must,” wrote Shakespeare, “As chimney-sweepers come to dust.” But there isn’t very much theoretical or philosophical about the muzzle velocity of an assault rifle. The man in Pittsburgh had meant what he said in the most hate-filled and homicidal sense. He said it in a way that affronted the common humanity of mankind, the particular foul disgrace smeared on our nation being almost incidental. His opinion was not one to be tolerated by anyone, anywhere, ever. But it was particularly shocking to hear it in the context in which I heard it. For one of the things about these golden girls of mine, this trio of lovely grandaughters, is that they happen to be our Jewish granddaughters. So with an awful suddenness a grotesque if distant event reported from the other end of Pennsylvania seemed not so far away at all. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work.
In the meantime the girls’ Dad, Zvi, was in Jerusalem where he had flown a few days earlier in order visit his parents—and in particular his father David, who is not mending well after a recent surgery. So Zvi, who has a busy enough real life job as scholar and teacher, has been shuttling like a family Kissinger the roughly six thousand miles between ailing fathers. When he is away, he usually sends me a cheering message now and then just for a chuckle. That day’s message, which appeared either during or shortly after the slaughter, was in the form of a pair of photographs—easily worth a thousand words each—that have gone viral in Israel.
The murderer is supposed to have “explained” in a social media post that his more specific anti-Semitic rage was directed at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a charitable group that has tried to aid desperate Syrian refugees, for welcoming "invaders in that kill our people." I have no idea what he means by “our people,” but in light of the horrible possibility he was talking about me, I allow myself the following remarks.
I don’t know how many Christians have participated in a Passover seder or regularly share in an ordinary family Sabbath dinner, but whatever the number, it is not enough. I say this from the perspective of a Christian seeking historical elucidation, of course, as well as of someone who likes a good meal. The central Christian sacrament and unifying weekly religious rite is a symbolic meal of commemoration, one common name for which is “Communion”. In our older churches its various ceremonies became settled only some centuries after the time of Jesus, but when they did so, they tended to become frozen in their particular historical moment. Wearing very strange garments, the equivalent of the tuxedos worn by Roman aristocrats in the late Antique period, our priests preside over a solemn rite in which the elements of an actual communal meal are only symbolically and archaeologically apparent. This ceremony must seem very weird indeed to anyone seeing it for the first time. Jesus is credited with being its inventor, but as he was not a Christian but a Jew, he never saw anything like it. You will see something Jesus was quite familiar with every Friday at our granddaughters' home.
All aspects of the Pittsburgh carnage are horrible, but one detail has an especially cruel irony. That is the name of the synagogue: the Tree of Life. That is a reference to one of the most famous trees in world literature: the lignum vitæ in medio Paradisi (Genesis 2:9). I know a bit about it from the literary point of view because I have written about Bonaventure’s little masterpiece entitled Lignum vitæ. As the ancient Hebrew image was continued in the Greek Scriptures we are told of this remarkable tree that “its leaves were for the healing of the nations.” Nations. Plural.