I didn’t know Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg. But I feel as if I did. Their lives and mission duplicated that of dozens of other Chabad emissaries throughout the world with whom I have enjoyed many long hours. In Melbourne, London, San Juan, Lima, Cambridge, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Rabat, Providence and Los Angeles I have been received as their guest, sharing in the warmth of their homes, participating in their family life and relishing sumptuous meals. Through all these years and visits, I have never failed to be impressed by one universal trait: a sense of wonder at the beauty of life. Searching back through my memories then, I have been able to form a composite portrait of the slain couple: the twinkle in the eye upon the greeting of a stranger; an intense curiosity about the traveler’s journey; the proud affirmation of a shared Jewish identity and the expression of a quirky, self deprecating humor, which all seems to emanate from a profound lightness of being. I have always left their homes elevated by the couple’s display of deep faith and won over by their enthusiasm to share whatever they have with someone they may have known for as little as an hour.
It was therefore more than heart rending to hear the news that the Holtzbergs had not only lost their lives in the Mumbai terror attack, but had suffered brutal torture and mutilation before their deaths. Reports have filtered back to the United States that the couple may have actually played host to their murderers a few months before as the assassins conducted their reconnaissance for the attack. If this was indeed the case then the irony that the renowned Chabad hospitality had contributed to such a grisly fate, is perhaps one of the more depressing aspects of the many horrific events of last week. An attack of such wanton hatred could barely be conceived by a couple who practiced loving kindness as an article of faith. Their lack of preparedness for the catastrophe that befell them then only adds to its inexplicability. Such absolute depravity seems beyond human understanding.
Yet we must force ourselves to confront the reality that such a menace is alive and growing in our world. It has infected vast swathes of the Arab and Muslim world and shows no sign of abating. There is little doubt that had their two-year-old son not been saved by his caregiver, he would have been put to death just like them, without compassion or remorse. A report in the Los Angeles Times comments that the Indian police are still flummoxed that the terrorists would dispatch a terrorist crew to an obscure house in a Mumbai suburb in order to attack a couple of ultra-Orthodox Jews. What they don’t appreciate is that the Holtzbergs were not only targets because they were Jews, but because they displayed a level of humanity that was anathema to their killers. They were symbols of the kind of world the terrorists had forsaken and notoriously revile. It is a world in which life is revered above death; where openness and tolerance are still key aspects of one’s sense of humanity; where awe at the beauty of life cannot be subsumed by adherence to a supremacist ideology or the worship of violence.
Of course the Holtzbergs were not the only individuals or families who were unprepared for the attacks and whose sudden extirpation seems so unfathomable. We should grieve the many innocent lives lost, including the three others taken with them in Nariman House. But the 400,000 mourners, from all walks of life, who attended the couple’s funeral in Israel last week knew that their tragic deaths could not be explained simply as an attack on Jews. It was an attack on Judaism itself. It was a denial of Judaism’s life giving force and the form of loving kindness that the Holtzbergs exhibited and that the Chabad movement so earnestly promotes.
Lets also not forget how others are now seeking to explain the attack on Chabad House. T. K. Bhat, an Indian neighbor who lives close to Chabad House, was reported by the Times of London as commenting: “It could be that the attitudes of the Chabad, which gives the sense of an elite club for Jews alone, is part of what provoked the terrorists to target them for the attack.” Really? Would that all elite Indian clubs now remember that close association and exclusionist policies will almost certainly render them instant targets of Islamic aggression. Perhaps the Times of London, which allowed such a noxious, anti-Semitic comment to pass without comment or criticism, has suddenly realized that their own Mumbai bureau is now as vulnerable as Nariman House was last week. The palpable nonsense that Jews bring attacks upon themselves merely by expressions of solidarity or mutual commitment should be revealed as trucking in the same kind of suspicion, jealousy and hatred that fuels the engine of Islamic terror.
It is said that killing as retribution for an earlier murder does everything to satisfy one’s demand for justice except to bring the dead back to life. That stated, we might remember that while the 170 innocent lives lost in India might be avenged one day by the capture and execution of the terrorist masterminds, that act in itself will do little to restore spiritual equilibrium to a shattered world. The ultimate victory over these purveyors of hate will come when we reaffirm our values and moral commitments in the face of their cruelty. It will come when Mumbai’s Chabad House is restored and the work begun by the Holtzbergs is taken up again by a vibrant young couple equally committed to the Chabad mission; It will come when more of us, deeply inspired by the courage and tenacity of the Holtzbergs, recognize that loving kindness is the most potent antidote for the nihilism and loathing with which the perpetrators of Islamic terror now seek to inject all humanity.
If this occurs, the young couple will certainly not have died in vain.