I did not know Leiby. I did not know his parents. I am not Jewish. If I were I would not be Orthodox. This is not a condemnation of orthodoxy. If I were Jewish I would most likely be like the friends I grew up with in East Flatbush Brooklyn, reformed. I am merely filtering this conception through the prism of my secular Catholicism. I am Catholic, most surely on Christmas and Easter as most of my Jewish friends and classmates at PS 208 were Jewish at least for New Year and Passover, or Pesach as 1 in 3 of them said. Belief was of a different order for us in East Flatbush, either Jewish or Christian, really Catholic because you were not likely a Protestant, yet of all my closest friends before I was eighteen, one was Lutheran and the other Anglican, Episcopalian. Virtually all of my classmates in public school and junior high school were Jewish. By the time I was fourteen I had been to more Bar Mitzvahs than Confirmations at Saint Therese or elsewhere.
Leiby’s parents have a different take on God I assume. We cannot know God’s plan, or so goes the orthodox position, a matter of faith and faith alone, conviction, when belief is of the kind found among Orthodox Jews. I know Catholics of the same psychology, devout in a way lost to me, devotion to God being a simplicity unappreciated by the university educated elite I had come to respect when I was an undergraduate. We know better than they was a dogma left without doubt. Our understanding of mind more scientific, more rational, more something yet unknown than their traditional belief in the human soul. The mind/soul dichotomy in English getting played out in the confrontations between science and religion.
Ours, though, is a philosophy of doubt, a persistent and pervasive unknowing without any of the certainties guaranteed the Orthodox mind, at least insofar as any traditional knowledge is the concern. Suffering, though, personal tragedy, certainly, are not part of the guarantees, either with or without faith. How do we, though, and how will Leiby’s parents, understand a God that leaves the suffering of children to the free-will of monsters? But we must be careful not to draw Leiby’s killer as someone extra-human because it is all too human to kill. An Orthodox Jew should understand this implicitly, I presume; Cain is, after all, Abel’s brother; Absalom and Achitophel are David’s son and his advisor. Joseph’s brothers sell him into bondage in Egypt. Leiby’s parents have other doubts and other convictions than our mainstream; their comprehension of this must be different than ours–I usually say we, us and ours when I do not have the courage to speak I, me and mine? How sure am I, are we? No boy is an island; neither are any of us, isolated.
I am a parent, and I’d like to be able to say that I understand what Mr. and Mrs. Kletzky are going through, but I would be fooling myself if I believed this. I know they must now feel as if they will never be able to forgive themselves, or so I imagine they must because I can imagine I would not be able to forgive me. I know my wife agrees, herself saying she hopes they have another child. I knew a Hasidic man who asked my father quite bluntly, yet with compassion, “What if something should happen to him?” when he found out I was an only child. Be fruitful is a command that has many practical applications we side-step. But could any of his siblings, present or imagined, replace him?
How could they bear this horror if little Leiby were their only one, my wife asked. No one is a substitute for another; others are distractions from sorrow. Do they, because they are Orthodox Jews, have better preparation for this mentally? Faith meets disaster in ways other than our philosophy of doubt. We’re certain in our civilization’s prejudices that the Orthodox Jew suffers maladies unknown to his community; that we are somehow psychologically fitter than they, although I’m not so sure. But how could I be sure? I only know the what ifs for me, how they are relevant to my life, my feelings, my sensibilities. My wife’s empathy allowing her to feel more deeply for others than even she herself knows is possible, shutting down from being overwhelmed at times her only defense, does not give her a hotline to Mrs. Kletzky.
Everything here is only imagined by me, by any of us. Anything I feel is only what I could imagine. However, imagination is eternity, as Blake reminds me over and again. Eternity is the place where the traditional God resides; outside of time and space; beyond, therefore, infinity. By the Eternal is what the ancient Hebrews said when referring to creation or any part thereof. But doesn’t God prize children? I’ve heard some ask. Perhaps too much, a counter argument has been presented. I remember “the suffering of little children argument” in college. The atheist position is one side; the theist, another, we assume. Yet neither theist nor atheist are Leiby’s parents, or the killer or the victim. Leiby’s death diminishes believers and non-believers alike. I heard church bells the other day ringing from Saint Finbar’s. I almost asked why they were ringing. I paused and I remembered.
I remember a film I saw about two childhood Jewish friends who meet after the Second World War in Montreal. One of them is a successful university lecturer there to read a paper at an international symposium, the other still in the garb of his grandfathers, still orthodox, still a believer, as his friend can no longer be. The one asks the other how he can still believe in God after all that they had been through, after all that they had experienced and suffered, after all that they had seen; the other, in reply, asks his friend, “After everything, how can you not believe in God.”
I see Leiby’s face. I saw him on a poster pasted to a subway exit door in Brighton Beach Brooklyn on Tuesday, July 12th, the Ocean Parkway Station. I saw him and I wished him well not knowing that he was already dead, or was on his way to being killed, brutally. I made the sign of the Cross for I did not know how to mean what I meant any other way. The God I was taught to believe in was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, as much as he was the God of Moses, Isaiah and Jesus.
God, though, was not with him unless we want to say that God intended this to happen, or that He knew it was about to happen and did nothing. Whether I believe or not is not the question. To believe or not to believe could easily become Leiby’s parent’s crucible. I imagine their choice to let him walk a few blocks from camp will be replayed over and over in their minds. There will come a time when I will forget, perhaps forever; if they lived forever, this will haunt them again and again. I know me; I know I am not so different from them. What I understand, though, is in my ability to stand under them. Who am I kidding? No one can do this without imagination. How developed mine is in this I pray I never find out. I don’t want to imagine this; part of the problem, I think, ours an imagination in the service of our pleasure alone?
I can’t say why I feel as I do, as sad as I do when I think of him, when I see the still from a surveillance video taken minutes before he would be abducted. Donne was right in his Meditations, this boy’s death diminishes me, but then all the deaths in this world diminish all of us, each of us, a part of the main. I can only hope Leiby’s parents find solace. I hope they are able to forgive themselves. If they can, there is hope for me, for the mistakes I have made, continue to make, am liable to in the future. I wonder if they can avoid mutual recriminations that destroy so many relationships. Most marriages do not survive this, but every one is an exception in each new context against every general rule.
I watched last night George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, today the 40th anniversary of the Madison Square Concert with Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Leon Russel and Bob Dylan. What do they and theirs have to do with little Leiby’s murder? Maybe nothing, possibly everything, just what anything there might be in that everything I cannot say. Famine in Bangladesh; famine in Darfur; little Leiby’s brutal homicide . . . all of a piece, the horror, the horror; it is all too human to be inhuman.