To the unbelievable

To the unbelievable

09 Sep 2016

Howard Cooper

It is the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and Rabbi Howard Cooper offers a reflection on external and internal threats, and Judaism's attitude to both.

It’s fifteen years, almost to the day.

A dozen or so devout young men, having said their morning prayers to God the All-merciful One, were preparing to board their American Airlines and United Airlines domestic flights, were preparing to die, were preparing the deaths of others, unknown, unnamed, unaware; were preparing to unleash an event that is now etched into all of our memories and consciousness.

At ten past four UK-time, on September 11th 2001, a Tuesday afternoon, my son phoned me on his mobile from Jerusalem. No greeting, just ‘Are you watching the news?’ I pressed the TV remote and we watched CNN together, three thousand miles apart. Three years before that, on a similar blue cloudless autumn day, we’d stood on the observation floor of the Twin Towers, half a mile up in the air, marvelling at the view from the top of this awe-inspiring building. And now we watched it, this magnificent and potent symbol of self-confident human achievement, crumbling in front of our disbelieving eyes. ‘Oh my God’ - it was all I could say. Not a prayer, not exactly a curse, more a stunned, strangled whisper of pity and horror.

And I knew - as each one of us will have known when we watched, or heard for the first time - that we would remember these moments for as long as we lived. Where we were, what we were doing.

And the other word I remember repeating, as I watched the pictures, obsessionally, over and over again, as if in a trance from which I couldn’t awake - the other word was ‘unbelievable’.

‘It’s unbelievable’ - over the next 48 hours I heard this more often than anything else. As if this was an attack too on our capacity to think, to use language, to find the words to describe our feelings. As if our brains and hearts were in shock - as perhaps they were.

In that first hour, watching that plane sear into the tower, watching people still frantically waving from the building, watching those two huge structures shiver and collapse in on themselves, watching the pulverised confetti of capitalism spreading its thick grey layer of dust and ashes over street after street, it was very hard to think. There were just the images, the horror, the sense of apocalypse now - and all those Hollywood movies that had got absolutely nowhere near conveying the reality.

Watching it live we were being shown it all and we were being shown almost nothing, because the real drama was happening where no cameras could go. As the novelist Ian McEwan commented the next day, ‘The Greeks, in their tragedies, wisely kept the worst of moments’ - the blood, the screams - ‘off stage, out of the scene. Hence the word: obscene. This was an obscenity. We were watching death on an unbelievable scale, but we saw no one die’. (Though of course we did see people falling, moments from death).

So my first response, like most people’s, was shock and horror. Fifteen years on, have the toxic images generated by that event faded? Has the deathly miasma of fear and doubt and confusion that came in the wake of this epoch-defining event faded away?

Or have we come to normalise terror,
now that it has penetrated not only to far-away lands in Asia, Africa, and America, but to the heart of our European cities?

In 2016 we may or may not be feeling more vulnerable than we did in those far-off days of 2001; but the questions catalysed by that traumatic event – political, social, personal, religious questions – have undoubtedly become more pressing.

So how are we as Jews to respond inwardly to acts of terror?

Judaism - historically, culturally, aesthetically, theologically - is unreservedly on the side of life. Whether your perspective is informed by religious ideas or secular ones, what unites both religious and secular Jews (though I dislike the labels because I think they mask a much more complex reality) is a deep understanding that Judaism is a respecter of, and promoter of, the sanctity of human life. We recognise the special, unique status of each human being. As our ancient rabbinic text expresses it:

‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

‘An entire world’ is sometimes understood as ‘the entire world’ – either way there is a clear recognition of the value and sanctity of every human life.

Acts of terror can threaten our capacity to stay in touch with our deepest values. Although we know that we can be compassionate and tender and capable of great feats of courage and love and selflessness, we know too that we can be ruthless and vindictive, that we can be (literally or metaphorically) killers and destroyers. Judaism recognises - and has long recognised - that there is in each of us a struggle between these competing forces: that there are impulses towards goodness and towards evil in each human heart, in every soul.

In this struggle, Judaism encourages us to believe that we each have the capacity to work on ourselves so that our anger and destructiveness, our avarice and selfishness and brutality, does not win out over our more noble and righteous capabilities. This is what the word Teshuvah – ‘returning’ - implies. It is at this time of the year, during Elul, when the shofar sounds each day in preparation for the ‘Days of Awe’, that we are reminded: there is a battle that goes on within us, there is an attack we are always under: an attack on our potential for goodness not from an external enemy but from an internal one.

Terrorism is not only an external threat.

Judaism recognises that we each harbour an ‘inner terrorist’ who can attack us when we least expect it; an attack on us launched from our despair, our cynicism, our relentless self-centredness; and we do not know when or where the next attack will come from, because we are a mystery to ourselves. We have hidden depths of hatred (and self-hatred), of aggression and willfulness, that can wreck our finest endeavours (or that of others), that can cause our hopes to crumble, our plans and dreams and all our fine words to turn to dust and ashes.

Perhaps this on a deep level is what causes some of our profound shock when we see terrorist attacks. As well as the sympathy and empathy that flows from us towards the victims and their families, these attacks touch in us – perhaps at an unconscious level - our awareness that our brightest hopes, our proud wishes and plans (for ourselves or others), are in reality so fragile, so vulnerable; that the security we feel when we wake up in the morning that we will survive the day and sleep again in our beds that night - that this sense of security is partly an illusion. Not only can external events over which we have no control sweep away our plans and wishes, can sweep away our very lives, but we also glimpse that we are also in danger from forces deep within us that can attack us out of the blue: that we can be the victim of rages and brainstorms and uncontainable inner destructive forces that come from parts of ourselves about which we may be quite unaware, and quite unprepared. Life is so precious - but so fragile.

I want to finish this week with a question,

a religious question that we must all have asked at some stage, and a question that is particularly acute when terrorism strikes.

How can we celebrate Jewishly, or how can we talk about a God of love and compassion, when we see that shocking, unforeseen things happen to us from the outside, randomly – bolts from the blue - that don’t distinguish between good and bad? In all tragedies, the merits and qualities of victims are irrelevant to their fates.

We Jews know about this question, we have wrestled with it for centuries, for millennia, from the Israelites in Egypt to all of us in the post-Holocaust generations. The innocent suffer and there is no explanation. Or none that is not insulting to our intelligence and to the memory of the victims. So what is the role of religious belief, of faith, in the presence of this reality?

It is to this question that I shall return next week – deo volente, God willing, bezrat HaShem, inshallah...

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at

Image credit: Kevin Lee

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