It is an axiom of long standing that Jewish blood is cheap. The moral equivalence displayed by President Obama in the wake of a brutal massacre of Jews in prayer — “Too many Jews have died; too many Palestinians have died” — is despicable but not surprising. What possible difference could there be between Jews murdered in a holy place during an act of religious devotion and suicidal homicidal maniacs turning themselves into human bombs to kill women and children?
One might have thought that when those Jews are American citizens their President would accord them respect. But even that hope for change was in vain. Three Americans and an Englishman were killed in the Anglo expat neighborhood of Har Nof in Jerusalem, but clearly that toll did not rank high enough to eclipse the formulaic pap — “Too many Jews have died; too many Palestinians have died.”
This dystopia of myopia is a murky place where decency, compassion, and ethical thinking come to drown. Sadly, we are beyond the point of being rattled by this snakiness.
Still, we could delude ourselves into thinking there was one last exception, one patch of hallowed ground where the elitist conscience must tread with awe. That is Harvard Yard. Surely the killing of a Harvard man would excite the President, elicit some genuine gentleness. But no, not even that… “Too many Jews have died; too many Palestinians have died.”
Rabbi Mosheh Twersky was not only a Harvard man himself, he was the son of Professor Isadore Twersky (1930-1997), the great Harvard scholar who was the chair of the Judaic Studies department at the school for two decades. Surely our President, noted editor of the Harvard Law Review, could find a tear to shed for the son of the editor of the Harvard Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature. Apparently not…
That leaves me the task of crying here for my slain friend. Mosheh and I were neighbors in a different Jerusalem neighborhood, Arzei Habira, and we got to know each other. He admired my writing and would ask me for copies of my notes on various scholarly subjects.
Mosheh was a truly outstanding individual in many respects. He came from exceedingly distinguished parentage but he was unassuming and self-motivated. His father was descended from a long line of Hassidic rabbis named Twersky based in the Ukraine. There is a magnificent coffee table book with pictures of the many Jewish leaders from this dynastic family. My own father’s father’s father came from one of those Ukrainian towns, and he credited Rabbi Jochanan Twersky, the Rebbe of Rachmestrivsk, with advising him to emigrate to the United States in 1905.
His mother is the daughter of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik (1903-1993), himself a scion of a rabbinic dynasty of Talmudic geniuses from Brest-Litovsk in Belarus. In a famous standoff, Moshe’s great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, tried to prevent Menachem Begin’s father and Ariel Sharon’s grandfather from using the local synagogue for Zionist events, but they broke the lock he placed on the door.
These Lithuanian intellectuals represent a markedly different type of scholar than their Hassidic counterparts. The Twersky-Soloveitchik marriage brought two worlds of greatness and nobility together.
Mosheh turned to the Talmud himself after Harvard. He married the daughter of a noted scholar, Rabbi Abba Berman (1919-2005), who survived the Holocaust in Shanghai, China, and made his way to the United States after the war. Mosheh became a teacher of young American students who take a year or two off between high school and college to immerse themselves in Talmudic thought and encounter life in Israel through the eyes of Jewish tradition. His wife runs a school for girls seeking a similar experience.
For someone who grew up amid royalty, in a cloistered club of dignified thinkers and holy men, Mosheh was remarkably free of airs. He also had none of the nerdy or antisocial affect associated with the bookish and the brilliant. He came across as pleasant and easygoing, very much open, approachable, and engaging. He was free of annoyance, resentment, grudges, ego, malice; I say this with no sense of exaggeration but with an enduring admiration.
Here murder reaches a peak. The disregard for humanity, for personhood, for all that God’s noblest creation can generate and enlighten. The power of the brute vanquished for one bloody moment the power of the mind, the heart, the soul, of character and refinement. In the Aramaic words of the Talmud: “Haval al di avdin velo mishtakchin — Alas for those who are lost but whose equivalent cannot be found!”