Boston’s interfaith memorial deflection

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Obama at the interfaith memorial service in Boston
Obama at the interfaith memorial service in Boston, by CJ Gunther, EPA

This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

With Boston’s lock-down over and the city picking up the pieces of its collective psyche, my thoughts return to the interfaith memorial service held there a few days ago.

Private mourning and collective mourning are different. Public memorial services are scripted and function in certain ways. They need to be analyzed.

You may have noticed that the number of these memorials is increasing. They are becoming definitive markers of our political – and religious – culture. What’s spoken and unspoken in these memorials is politically important.

So many “political” realities go unmentioned in our public tributes to the victims of violence. The politics we “rise” above may be at the heart of the very horrific situations being memorialized.

Questions need asking. Are we memorializing the victims of furthering our own interests? Are we reaching out to others or are we feathering our own nest?

Political leaders are liable for such examination. Religious leaders are as well.

If after reading what follows, you think that I’m obsessing about Jews, Israel, Palestinians and Palestine, that’s your prerogative. After all, the memorial service in Boston was for the victims of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. As you will see, I believe that if mourning is to be genuine, we have dig underneath the sentiments expressed. When we unearth the unspoken that should have been spoken, a more genuine mourning can commence.

The interfaith service was held in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Among others, President Obama was in attendance and addressed those gathered. The mood was somber and intense. When the service was held both suspects were still on the loose. More carnage lay ahead.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke of his recent Easter retreat where he and a number of priests visited Galilee, Jerusalem and beyond. The Cardinal intoned the Hebrew words tikkun olam for the healing needed after the bombings.

The Cardinal did not mention that part of his retreat was held in Palestine. He did not use any Arabic words of healing. That would strike the wrong “political” note.

Why Palestine and Arabic is political in our lexicon, therefore divisive, and Israel and Hebrew is typically seen as apolitical, therefore healing, has important ramifications for the cultural and political word we live in. It is reflective of way Jews and Muslims are perceived in America and the imbalance we see on the ground in Israel/Palestine.

The Jewish community had its representative say with words of healing and reconciliation worthy of our attention. Here’s how the Huffington Post reported the Jewish voices:

“In times of crisis, we have to make sure we are together. We felt that we’re not alone,” said Rabbi Matt Soffer of Temple Israel of Boston, who came with a group of clergy from several faiths at 7 a.m. to wait outside the 2,000-seat cathedral. By the time he arrived, the line already stretched for blocks.

Rabbi Ronne Friedman, the senior rabbi at Soffer’s congregation who spoke at the service, cited Psalm 147, addressing God as the “healer of the brokenhearted” who will “empower them with strength and courage and restore to them and to all of us who grieve with them a sense of life’s goodness and purpose.”

Though I agree with the sentiments, I’m curious where the Rabbis stand on Israel – and Palestine. I can’t find much of anything on their views. According to the website of Temple Israel where both are Rabbis, in 2011 the congregation embarked on a three year study of “diverse voices” on Israel. The first speaker was Peter Beinart.

Overall, Temple Israel is a liberal congregation. On immigration, education and racial justice the congregation is quite vocal. The given reason for the congregation’s Israel study is because issues relating to Zionism and Israel are causing tensions within the congregation. More than a year into their study, I wonder where they have arrived.

Jewish voices lack credibility on other issues if they refuse to speak about what’s happening to Palestinians. It’s too easy to evoke beautiful sentiments about suffering in Boston if you’re not working to end the more or less permanent lock-down Palestinians endure. For Temple Israel the question remains if the reason for their study is to keep the congregation from imploding or to fashion action that confronts the state of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people.

The Christians the Cardinal met and prayed with on his Easter retreat were no doubt mostly international. If there were Palestinians from the Galilee present, I’m sure they were on their best “universal Christian” behavior. As with the memorial service, it wouldn’t look right if they sullied spirituality with politics. God forbid!

If most every religious time is the wrong time, one wonders if there is ever a right time to speak for justice.

Unfortunately, too many Palestinian Christians buy into Christianity’s false universalism. They believe that Christians from America will naturally be attentive to them, if not because they are suffering, then at least because they are Christian.

Palestinians couldn’t be more wrong. The Christian hierarchy in the West has a self-interested investment in Jews. It’s about Christians and their credibility after the Holocaust.

Perhaps, behind the scenes, discussions of the plight of Palestinians did take place. The Cardinal might even know the real score in Israel/Palestine, as more and more Church officials do. But the public airing in Boston was typically Israel and Jewish only. Cardinals know when to keep their mouth shut.

Check out the Cardinal’s blog which recalls the Easter retreat. ( The pictures of ancient Christian art and churches are marvelous. The retreat participants visited a number of Christian holy sites in northern Israel – as noted in the blog. These included the Basilica of the Annunciation, Mount Carmel, the Sea of Galilee, the Church of the Transfiguration, Qumran, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cenacle. The latter are in Jerusalem, part of which international law recognizes as Palestinian.

On one day of the retreat the Cardinal and his priests ended up you-know-where – at the Western Wall. For those on retreat it was an emotional moment. Father Gregory Vozzo relates it:

We concluded our day of pilgrimage at the famous Western Wall of the city, where devout Jews of many places and rabbinic schools were getting ready to begin the Sabbath. This wall is significant because it is part of the very same wall that one enclosed the Temple area. Although the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., we do well to remember, as these Jews do, that God’s dwelling in the Holy of Holies was once on the other side of this wall. Although many people call the Western Wall “the wailing wall”, this name is not accepted here. What we saw and learned today makes plain why this is. Those who come here to pray long for what is to come, not what once was. They long for the Messiah and for God’s everlasting reign in Jerusalem. Their pilgrimage, much like ours, is one of joyful remembrance and hope. May all our tears be dried by the God who comes to save His people.

You can check out the rest of trip on but be warned, it’s not for the faint or (secular or liberation theology) heart. The Cardinal’s Easter retreat features a world without much reality, political or otherwise. It’s a scandal really. Cardinal Sean, as he likes to be called, should be ashamed.

There was a Muslim speaker at the memorial service. He was on his best behavior, too. No doubt he was glad to be invited and, like Jews decades ago, he functioned as symbolic representative of the broader American Muslim community. It’s important that he looks good on television and speaks in good English. He did.

That’s just the beginning of the story of Muslim angle. The Huffington Post reported this way:

While a suspect has not been named in the Boston attack, speculation has aired in news reports about the race and faith of the culprit. A Muslim who chairs the New England Interfaith Council, Nasser Weddady, who spoke on behalf of the city’s Muslims, shared his story of becoming a United States citizen last week. “Whoever kills a soul, it is as if he killed mankind entirely. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved all of mankind,” he said, referencing Islamic and Jewish scripture.

The director of civil rights outreach for the American Islamic Congress, Weddady sought asylum from Mauritania in 1999, and though he did not mention it Thursday, was in the media spotlight when he was wrongfully detained by law authorities after Sept. 11 on suspicions of ties to terrorism.

Thank God, Weddady buried his post-September 11th experience! Can you imagine him weaving an American Muslim “political” view of the aftermath of September 11th into his prayerful reflection?

September 11th and its aftermath, that’s a whole other kettle of political worms. And with President Obama sitting right there?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and

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