Apologizing for a Killer

Koreans took the news hard. Lee Tae Sik, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, suggested that Koreans in the US fast for 32 days, one day for each victim. President Roo Moo-hyun devoted a press conference to the story; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt compelled to issue a statement. Cardinal Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk said. “As a South Korean, I can’t help feeling apologetic about how a Korean man caused such a shocking incident.” Koreans were reported to be in a state of shock, stirring from it to offer a string of apologies.

Not everyone found this so admirable. One Los Angeles talk show host accused Korean-Americans of using the tragedy to stimulate sympathy for their community through a display of exaggerated contrition. He accused them of “playing the race card…. Now look who’s stereotyping.” An online Korean news source offered its own distaste. “It’s an overreaction. It’s doubtful whether the South Korean reaction will really help anyone.”

Some spun it more sympathetically. They pointed out the vulnerability that all minority groups feel. The Los Angeles Times reported that Muslims, African-Americans, and Latinos all expressed relief when they learned that they could not be linked to the gunman. Koreans had much to fear. Of foreigners studying in the United States, more come from Korea than any other country – including India and China. Koreans were fearful of compromising what could be seen as a special relationship with the United States.

Some pointed to elements of Korean history and geography. Koreans are a people of a single “blood” or ethnicity, with a long memory of oppression at the hands of two much stronger peoples (the Chinese and Japanese) that took turns at invading them. Koreans, it was surmised, had an artificially pronounced sense of the collective.

Others observed that it is not unusual at all for individuals of all cultures to feel connected to those around them, and come to see them in time as extensions of their own selves. The primal scream of soccer fans cheering on “their” team issues from a latent tribalism that blurs the distinction between individual and group. It is not surprising at all for people to feel so much for the larger group that all of its emotional charge – the defeats and embarrassments as well as the victories – redounds to each member.

Perhaps as Jews there is reason to look upon this phenomenon with a good deal more charity. Historically, we know all about scapegoating and collective guilt, of how often large groups of Jews were made to pay for the manufactured guilt of a single coreligionist. More importantly, though, is what we see in the Torah, which seems to expect people to identify with and take responsibility for the experiences of cultural relatives.

We are instructed for all time not to hate the Egyptian, because they were once our hosts. Hundreds of years after Yisro offered his daughter and his services to the Jewish people, we remembered that kindness and offered safe passage to his descendents before any battle that might effect them.

In a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” world, it is difficult to relate to events so far removed in time, and see them as laying claim to our reactions in the future. Comprehended or not, the Torah’s logic is not that of the street. The Torah wishes us to identify with our ancestors of millennia past, and to feel gratitude through our connection to them.

Perhaps this ability to identify with the collective is not just part of our animal nature, but an engine for good. By identifying with a larger group, we find it easier to take compassionate responsibility for that group as well.

A few weeks ago, six German teens visited a centrist high school in Los Angeles. The Germans had all been involved in the translation of a book about a Jewish family during the Holocaust. They entertained questions.

“Do you feel guilty?” one YULA student asked the guests.

“No. But I do feel greatly ashamed,” the German teen responded.

One need not feel guilt for the rampage of Cho Seung-Hui to feel ashamed. That shame should be cherished, not derided. It comes from a place inside that allows us to make others a part of our lives, and feel for them as if for ourselves.

Cho Seung-Hui was the quintessential loner. He felt for no one, and connected with no one. Koreans quickly rejected the opportunity to separate one man from another. It was an appropriate and humane reaction, to be applauded rather than scorned.

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18 Responses

  1. Tal Benschar says:

    There is a big difference between what Germany did in the Holocaust and this latest incident — whether there was collective action. The entire German nation was mobilized to perpetrate the Holocaust. That is collective action for which they should bear collective shame.

    This latest incident, OTOH, has no collective aspect at all. The perpetrator was not trying to advance some Korean political or cultural agenda. He was a loner and a homicidal maniac. His motivation was his own psychological torture. He could have as easily been Caucasian. So I fail to see what the South Koreans have to be ashamed of.

  2. Will Choose says:

    The reports this morning in the Israeli press of Professor Liviesku’s levaya brought tears to my eyes.
    Two questions:
    Why are these reports more extensive in Jewish media than non-Jewish?

    Would I be crying the same way for a non-Jewish professor who had done the same thing?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    While fasting is at most a gesture, doing something for the bereaved families would have a lasting effect.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    this aligns with the “yes, but …” denounciations put forth my Jews re: Baruch Goldstein.

  5. Sarah Shapiro says:

    Starting to read this article, I was saddened to hear that the Koreans’ reaction was being greeted in some quarters with skepticism, and am proud of Rabbi Adlerstein’s response.

    Every time a Jew — especially an Orthodox Jew — does something wrong anywhere in the world, many of the rest of us feel personally ashamed. I remember all too well that upon hearing news of Rabin’s assassination, my first spontaneous, fearful thought was, “I sure hope he [the murderer] wasn’t religious.”

  6. Reb Yid says:


    The American press has had extensive coverage of Prof. Librescu and certainly made mention of his Jewishness, being a Holocaust survivor, refusenik, Israeli citizen, etc.

    Just today in the NYTimes on-line edition there was a headline photo/article of his levaya, with his widow weeping over his body covered in a tallit. The comment section had over 400 responses when I last checked.

  7. David says:

    It might not be the Korean in him that did this deed, but the Muslim in him. Blogs, rather than MSM, are reporting that the killer had “Ismail AX” written in red ink on his arm while making his red mark on history. We will probably get more info on this soon, but I suspect it will not be adequately reported or discussed.

  8. Elana says:

    When I read an article about the “Korean Response”, I was actually thinking that this is a good example (l’havdil) of the concept of a chillul Hashem. This man made a “chillul Koreans”, so to speak, and that was the point of the “Koreans are taking it hard” media coverage.

    I think that the mussar we should learn from this is that whether we intend it or not, our actions are seen as representative of Klal Yisroel, and not only our fellow Yidden but Hashem Himself kaviyachol “take it hard” when we do something inappropriate.

  9. Veganovich says:

    David — April 20, 2007 @ 12:30 pm

    There are endless alternative theories for what ‘Ismail Ax’ means, which are equally plausible. Examples of some in the Chicago Tribune article linked to below. There is a great deal of media coverage, and it seems unlikely that if he became a Muslim, no one would have noticed it. While he was a loner, surely someone would have noticed him going to a mosque, talking about Islam, having Islamic books in his room, (which he shared with roommates), or providing some other evidence.


  10. Tzurah says:

    Re: Tal Benschar

    I don’t think R’ Adlerstein was commenting on whether or not the shooting was a collective crime by the Korean community. He was talking about the feeling of communal responsibility that is acutely felt by the Korean community *even if* this particular crime by this particular Korean was the act of a disturbed individual.

    I think a lot of us can identify with what Sarah Shapiro wrote in comment #5 (“I sure hope he [the murderer] wasn’t religious.”). It puzzles me why Tal says, “…I fail to see what the South Koreans have to be ashamed of.” South Koreans feel ashamed because when any South Korean commits a crime like this, they naturally feel connected to it. This feeling should be very easy for Jews to understand and appreciate. Perhaps, since Tal (as well as most of us)lives in a country where individualism is often over-emphasized, he had a mistaken impression that having strong feelings of communal identity is a Jewish/non-Jewish issue?

  11. Will Choose says:

    I hope most readers understood me:
    We single out Jewish conduct and feel as Jews for Jews in whatever situation. Likewise, those who identify with other groups should be understood to single out the conduct of their members and to feel for theirs likewise.

  12. Yaakov D. Homnick says:

    Although it may be counterintuitive, the Torah seems to teach that individual atrocities can be used to extrapolate as a reflection upon the larger culture.

    For example, Moshe encounters a seemingly isolated incident of two guys who engage in fisticuffs and badmouthing. Rashi tells us (Shmos 2:14) this prompted reservations whether the Jews were in a state worthy of redemption.

    The Talmud (Gittin 58a) says the Heavenly decree to destroy Har Hamelech (King’s Mountain, a great community in the Second Temple period) was catalyzed by a single event. A student gulled his teacher into divorcing his wife, then married the woman and used his financial clout to force the teacher to serve them as a butler.

    While this was presumably a “last straw”, it still indicates a lone expression of undistilled evil is seen to instantiate an inchoate vitiation of the culture. (Yikes, I hate to erase a sentence that nice, but it is too oblique, isn’t it? I mean it shows a society is rotten if that extreme a behavior could come out of it.)

    The Midrash concerning Sodom also gives the impression that the cruel lynching of a philanthropic woman by smearing her with honey and setting bees upon her sealed the edict to exterminate Sodom. But that could be understood as a mob killing or at least one that had broad public support.

  13. Barzilai says:

    Rabbi Homnick, Dathan and Abiram were among the leaders of the Jewish people, and remained so after their various crimes, which included informing the government (squealing) on Moses’ involvement in the killing of the Egyptian, not the fisticuffs and badmouthing. This is evident from the fact that when D and A became poor, and no longer had the government’s respect, Moses felt it was safe to return to Egypt. The tale related in Gittin involved an atrocity that was open, continuous, and notorious, where communal silence made them complicit. It seems to me that “ish b’chet’o yumas’ would be the operative concept, and certainly it would be so when the fellows of the criminal demonstrate honest and heartfelt revulsion and rejection. Sometimes, Torah does not have to be counterintuitive.

  14. Yaakov D. Homnick says:

    There is no indication either in that verse or the Rashi that the two men fighting were leaders. He merely says that the presence of evil talebearing people formed the basis of Moshe’s concern. Anything else is insertion of external information, not valid in the forming of foundational principles of Jewish thought.

    The Gemara in Gittin does not cite communal complicity in that story either. Certain other stories where collaborators or enablers were a factor note that fact accordingly, as in Shabbos 55a where it discusses the issue of “lo michu”.

    Again, to inject facts not in evidence is a violation of the systems by which we determine the principles which we then apply to analyze events. Acharonim have a phrase for what you just did: “Ain ailu ella divrai nevius”.

    I once complained to the late Reb Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg about this tendency for people to explain away clear sources by clouding the issues with material not adduced in the source itself. He confirmed this was a common error, that we suffer from people trying to analyze texts without mastering the “rules of engagement”.

    In short, if the issue is leaders, Rashi would say leaders. If the issue was communal complicity, the Gemara would say communal complicity.

  15. greenBubble says:

    What the Koreans have done is what we should demand of Muslims, which they will not do. If, after an attack, “mainstream” Muslims would distance themselves from the perps, and offer penance, then we could work with them to eradicate the jihad mindset. Given that they don’t, and they even condone it, they are as guilty as the perps themselves.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding Comment by greenBubble — April 25, 2007 @ 11:51 pm:

    Is it possible to be a 100% faithful Muslim and not have the “jihad mindset”? Or is the lack of this mindset among some Muslims a testimony that they disregard or fudge one or more key elements of Islam? Note that it is possible for a person with the “jihad mindset” to coexist with non-Muslims when he judges current conditions to be unfavorable for waging jihad successfully.

  17. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    The answer to Bob’s query, is an unqualified yes. I know, have met with extensively, and know many more people each of whom knows quite committed, religious Muslims who are as far from a “jihadist mindset” as Bob is. I know religious Muslims who vocally speak out against terrorism – without equivocation. I know some who fully accept Israel’s right to exist, and who see the Hand of G-d in the survival of a Jewish people they admire.

    I reiterate – I am talking about observant Muslims, not “reform” ones.

    Neither they nor I know whether there are a sufficient number to turn back the hearts and minds of their coreligionists from the poisons of fundamentalism and Wahhabism.

    Beyond the all-important avodah of throwing ourselves on rachamei Shomayim, the only thing we can do through our own effort is to encourage people like them. Denying that they exist is certainly not helpful

  18. Barzilai says:

    Rabbi Homnick said,
    “Again, to inject facts not in evidence is a violation of the systems by which we determine the principles which we then apply to analyze events. Acharonim have a phrase for what you just did: “Ain ailu ella divrai nevius”.”

    In the sense that “science, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic”, I suppose one could fairly refer to my comment as divrei nevius. Or one could see Bamidbar 26:9, where Dathan and Abiram are called K’ri’ei Eidah, or Parshat Kedoshim, Bamidbar 20:5, which says that the family of the perpetrators of certain vile pagan acts is punished along with him, and Rashi brings “Rav Shimon said, but what sin did the family do? But this teaches that there is no family of which a member is a Mocheis (which is an ongoing and public crime) that they are not all Mochsim, for they all shield him.” Rashi then follows this by saying that even so, the family may deserve to suffer to some degree, but they are not nearly as guilty as the perpetrator himself.

    Speaking of Rav Weinbergs, my late Rosh Yeshiva once said a shiur which brilliantly analyzed a Rashi. He was asked after the shiur, but Rebbi, Rashi later seems to contradict what you said here! He answered that his analysis stands, as it was incontrovertibly correct as far as Rashi on amud aleph was concerned.
    This methodology is perfectly appropriate in a Yeshiva context, but hashkafa ought to require a broader approach.

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