Living the Sabbath: The Etz Chayim/Tree of Life Synagogue Shootings
by Karl Malachut
We read within the account of Joseph Smith’s first vision, “Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.” On Saturday, October 27th, 2018, I felt a similar darkness gather around as the news spread of eleven members of the Etz Chayim/Tree of life synagogue being shot in the middle of a baby naming of a gay couple on Shabbat. For me, this was a tragedy on many levels. After coming to terms with the fact I was gay and leaving the church, I realized I was a Jew and went through a conversion process with a rabbi. With this tragedy, there is no easy way for those of us within the Jewish community to articulate how we feel. We are very much still in mourning, much like I imagine the early saints must have been upon learning that Joseph Smith lost his own life to a bullet. As difficult a time as this is, I am finding hope in my experiences with Affirmation. This hope I feel is expressed in our ability to affirm each other in our myriad diversity and our shared narrative of the LGBTQIA/SSA experience.
I tend to be a big picture kind of person. I was amazed to find at Affirmation’s annual International Conference earlier this year a big beautiful picture of the diversity within the Affirmation community. I saw people of all races, all genders, no gender, those who choose to be celibate, those who choose to be in a same-sex marriage, those who choose to be in a mixed-orientation marriage, and those in many other places in their life journies. In my experience, of all organizations seeking to support and represent the LGBTQAI/SSA Mormon community, Affirmation does the most to welcome and celebrate diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity, faith, and relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this diversity though, the church’s teaching of us all being part of a universal family can be seen and felt. At times I found people showing much love in their differences. At other times though there were frustrations; not unlike you would find in any family. Overall, everyone seemed to have a sense of a common purpose to make the conference a space and time where all could be affirmed for who we are and we could affirm others for who they are. All could find affirmation. We live up to our namesake, I feel, by showing love despite our differences, or even because of them. I believe, the love found in affirming people can cause the weapons of the adversity of our life to fall. What if the shooter would have stayed just a moment and observed all that was happening around him? Those he wounded and killed would have welcomed him and given him a prayer book. He would have heard the peaceful melodies that all of us in the Jewish community hear on our Sabbath. If he had taken the time to observe the celebration of diversity unfolding that day in that synagogue and felt the power of affirmation, the power of accepting and celebrating our differences, would he have been able to see the big picture? Would he have been able to see value in the lives that he took?
Beyond affirming each other through love despite our differences, another way we affirmed each other at the conference was through dialogue. Each of us relates to the church in a different way. I am reminded of the testimony period where I got up to say how grateful I was to be at the Affirmation conference. An Affirmation member, one whom I had shared many differences in the past, burst into tears. At that moment, we were able to see past our differences and see each other better as humans, united by a common ritual and made possible because of our willingness to dialogue. Following the conference, I’ve continued to dialogue with others whom I felt a closeness with, like this person, not because of what we believed, but because our common bonds, our shared rituals, shared callings, proximities, and the recognition that many of us have similar doubts regarding the church. We can’t be Affirmation without our common bond that is our experience as Latter-day Saints, former Latter-day Saints, or beloved paramours of those with these experiences. Our individual journies in Affirmation includes seeking to understand what the church has meant, or currently means, for our lives. This is all made possible by dialogue. If only the shooter could have heard the voice of the baby crying, heard the child’s dialogue with him to not engage in an act of hate. He may not have carried out his horrific act on our Sabbath day.
As a Jewish member of Affirmation, I am grateful for so many within Affirmation who attended a synagogue in solidarity with us the Shabbat following the shootings. I know some had me close in their hearts when they did so. I don’t think this outpouring of love and support would have been possible without the community created by Affirmation, one that affirms all in accepting and celebrating our differences and unites us with our common experiences with the church. This love, support, acceptance, and unity is a taste of the world to come. I believe this is what we are supposed to feel on the Sabbath. May we live the Sabbath, and feel these things, for those who were denied their Sabbath.
In the name of all that is merciful, all that is just, and all that is kind,