When evil bombards us, how do we keep the faith

Torture. Mutilation. Senseless massacres. Brutal killings staged in front of video cameras. Grisly photos that make us cringe.

Sixty years after the Holocaust, the images of senseless slaughter from Iraq as well as Gaza and elsewhere continue to appall us.

The slaying of 26-year-old Nicholas Berg, a Jewish man from Pennsylvania, is an act of madmen, not unlike the deeds of Hitler’s henchmen. As was the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, a Jewish reporter from The Wall Street Journal, in Pakistan. As was the murder two weeks ago of eight-months’ pregnant Tali Hatuel and her four young daughters in Gaza. And the countless ambushes of civilians throughout Israel and the territories.

Then we read that Palestinian militants tried to blackmail Israel for the body parts of six soldiers killed in Gaza on Tuesday, May 11.

What is the world coming to?

Lest we comfort ourselves in the belief that atrocities are the province of deranged “Muslim extremists,” and that we as Americans are above them, we have only to take a look at the photos from Abu Ghraib prison. Are we no better than our enemies?

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, points to the lessons from Pirkei Avot, translated as “Ethics of the Fathers”: “In the place in which there are no men, strive to be a man.”

Said Pearce: “I think about the soldier who blew the whistle on this whole thing [at the Abu Ghraib prison]. What is it about him that couldn’t tolerate this behavior, while others were posing for pictures and laughing and taking pleasure from it? His behavior is the very one that we as Jews champion during the Holocaust — that there were righteous gentiles who could not tolerate Nazi behavior and did whatever their conscience led them to do to fight intolerable behavior.”

Pointing to another statement from Pirkei Avot, he added: “Do not follow after the multitude to do evil.”

He also wondered if “maybe we’re looking at a greater indictment of moral education in this country,” particularly when some Americans involved in the prison scandal claimed they were “only following orders.” We’ve heard those words before.

Judaism always has acknowledged the potential for humans to do good as well as evil. Perhaps we can move beyond our shock and our “it can’t happen here” dismissals to ask some serious questions. How can we take to heart the ethical teachings that are common to all major faiths? And how can we join with all people of conscience to quash the evil that surrounds us?