High Ideals, Murder and Me: What It Means to be Good
Cuomo’s pardon, God’s pardon and Yom Kippur’s forgiveness.
On his last day as Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo pardoned six people. One of them was David Gilbert, a Jew in his 40th year serving a 75-year prison term on three counts of homicide. In 1981, along with members of the Black Liberation Army and fellow members of the radical left Weather Underground, David Gilbert drove the getaway car in an armed robbery of a Brinks Armored vehicle. David Gilbert’s goal was not personal wealth but rather to finance his beloved political causes. During the operation, two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed.
I read the news, and trembled. David Gilbert and I had travelled a similar path in the 1960s. Like David, I was raised in a middle Jewish home, he in suburban Boston, I in suburban Philadelphia. Like David, I was first inspired by the vision of Martin Luther King.
Like David, my first forays into social protest were in the civil rights movement of the early sixties. As a 16-year-old, I first held a picket sign at a civil rights demonstration in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. I remember the adrenaline rush of feeling that I was fighting for a righteous cause.
Like David, I joined the radical leftwing S.D.S. to protest the war in Vietnam and other social injustices. Yet, I’ve spent the last four decades joyously living in Jerusalem, while he’s been living behind bars.
Like David, I was a good student and got into a top college – he to Columbia, me to Brandeis. Like David, I joined the radical leftwing S.D.S. – Students for a Democratic Society, to protest the war in Vietnam and other social injustices. (David, four years older than I, actually founded the new branch of S.D.S. at Columbia in 1965.)
Yet, I’ve spent the last four decades joyously living in the Old City of Jerusalem, while he has been living behind bars. What made our paths diverge?
I was an enthusiastic member of S.D.S. I was passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam – and to all those who supported it. In October, 1967, I joined the 100,000-strong March on the Pentagon. After a concert by our idol Phil Ochs and speeches at the Lincoln Memorial, fifty thousand of us marched to the Pentagon. Linked arm-in-arm, we heard bull horns warning us women to remove our dangling earrings, lest the soldiers pull at them when things get violent.
The Pentagon was surrounded by a protective line of armed soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division. I was not one of the “love-and-peace flower children,” who tenderly placed flowers in the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles. Rather, I seethed with hatred for President Lyndon B. Johnson and the military-industrial complex that profited from the war.
The Flower Power photograph by Bernie Boston, taken during "March on The Pentagon", 21 October 1967.
We chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” and tried to storm the Pentagon. We were pushed back by tear gas, but kept regrouping and pushing forward.
Eventually, a phalange of students from Brandeis succeeded in breaking through the line of soldiers and reached the actual doors of the Pentagon. The doors opened and armed soldiers burst out, attacking the students with their rifle butts. The busses back to Brandeis had many injured and bandaged students, but we all felt the thrill of standing up for a righteous cause.
Love and Hatred
As the months – and protests – passed, something was bothering me. Our weekly S.D.S. meetings were co-chaired by Leonard, a humorless, balding PoliSci graduate student, and Phyllis, a senior sociology major with an austere Buster Brown haircut and wide mouth, usually open. Leonard and Phyllis never spoke a civil word to each other, and our S.D.S. meetings usually degenerated into screaming matches between them.
Phyllis was a middle-class Jewish Socialist, devoted to a watered-down, benign version of Russian Communism with a good measure of civil liberties mixed in. Leonard, on the other hand, was a card-carrying member of P.L., the Progressive Labor Party, which looked to Chinese Communism (Maoism) as its ideal. These differing ideologies split our S.D.S. chapter. Somehow, the hatred that we championed toward our enemies took over our S.D.S. chapter itself.
I tried to understand what was going wrong. The chambers of my heart were neatly divided between love for the poor, napalmed Vietnamese peasants, and hatred for the armed forces, the Pentagon, the U.S. government, Dow Chemical (who manufactured napalm), the military-industrial complex, all Republicans, Democrats who supported L.B.J., and everyone to the right of me.
In sum, the people I hated outnumbered the people I loved by a vast proportion.
If we were so loving, why were we so filled with hatred?
Yet at our S.D.S. meetings, we cast ourselves as the loving, compassionate ones, aligned against the cruel, unfeeling, mercenary war-mongers. But if we were so loving, why were we so filled with hatred? This incongruity might never have dawned on me, had not Leonard and Phyllis attacked each other with so much malice that I finally found myself asking, “How is it that we love the Vietnamese peasants, whom we’ve never met, but we can’t stand the people we actually live with?”
This inconsistency between lofty ideals and day-to-day behavior gnawed at me until I dropped out of S.D.S. I embarked on a spiritual search that led me to India and eventually to Torah Judaism.
Being Good is in the Actions
The Torah speaks not of grandiose ideals but of concrete actions. The overriding commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is fulfilled, according to Maimonides, in three ways:
- Provide for their physical needs (food, clothing, medical care, etc.).
- Treat them with respect.
- Speak well of them.
I might espouse belief in universal love, but if I ignore charity appeals for the sick or homeless, treat my family members with contempt, and speak maliciously about my annoying next-door neighbor, my love is a sham. It is these nitty-gritty actions that we are supposed to examine in these days leading up to Yom Kippur.
The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy contains a repeated confession (to God, not to any human being) of such sins as:
- Hard-heartedness (not giving charity to the needy)
- Cheating in business
- Using one’s power, position, or influence to hurt others
- Charging interest for a loan
- Envying another’s possessions or wishing ill on another due to envy
- Looking down on others
- Sexual exploitation
- Judging others negatively
- False advertising
- Making fun of others
- Hating others
- Financial abuse of business partners or employees
If I ignore appeals for the sick or homeless, treat my family with contempt, and speak maliciously about my next-door neighbor, my love is a sham.
During the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are enjoined to examine our lives. When we identify our own wrong actions, we are supposed to admit them, regret them, and make a concrete plan to change. If we have hurt another person, we must also ask forgiveness, specifically mentioning our misdeed. Not, “If I’ve done anything to hurt you, please forgive me.” But rather, “I’m sorry for the time I yelled at/insulted/embarrassed you. Please forgive me.”
Our daily actions are the pixels that form the picture of who we are. Judaism offers the exhilarating prospect that we can change who we are. If we engage in sincere teshuvah, repentance, God forgives. The process of teshuvah – changing our actions – can actually erase ugly parts of the picture.
Cherish exalted ideals. But focus on your day-to-day actions. And never let love become an excuse for hatred.