Our Sisterhood Book Club just met this past week to discuss a book I admit I would not have picked up in the book store.  For full disclosure, I read (or more specifically, I listen to audiobooks) nowadays as a way of escaping the world, to be entertained in stories far away from my life experiences and my life history so that I can just sink into a different world where things may be a bit calmer, a bit more gentile, a bit more uplifting.  I am confident that the book BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan would not have found its way into my cart.

But I am glad that our Sisterhood Book Club presented it to me.  I have been struggling with just observing our world around us, rather than actively working to change that which I can impact, and signs are presenting themselves to me that let me know I no longer want to just watch and lament, but I have a need to act and to be engaged.

Without giving too much away, the protagonist of this book, a historical fiction based on a true story, is a man named Pino Lella who as a young man (a teenager still) is put into situations in Italy during WWII where he finds himself witnessing and participating in some acts of goodness, as well as witnessing extreme atrocities and not being able to stop them.  The effect this has on him, of being an “Observer” troubles him throughout not just the war, but his life.

This makes me consider our current world, and the role I have in it, especially as a Reform Jew.  My mother and I often compare (and contrast) the religions that we belong to and the teachings that they put forward.  We were both raised as Catholics, but at different points in our lives we looked to and committed ourselves to different religions for the guidance and comfort we were individually seeking.  I found mine in Reform Judaism – my mother as a Jehovah’s Witness.  As I learned more about her religion, I was struck most by the contrast between the actions and inactions of each.  I understand now that the word Witness in their name truly means just that – they are watching, they are witnessing, they are observing the world around them. (Yes, this is a simplistic breakdown, but I do not want to get into the details here.)

In comparison, there is my understanding of the Reform Judaism I have followed, that it is not enough to just witness things, to just observe – our Judaism requires that we act.  We must act to not only help our fellow humans, but to change the world around us to make it better for everyone, not just better for ourselves.

This is the struggle our young man in BENEATH A SCARLET SKY grapples with throughout the story.  Of course, being a witness to something is important – to see things, to acknowledge their occurrence, to never forget them.  But as a Reform Jew, I must also act in any way I can to make a change.  One of our primary mandates as a Jew is Tikkun Olam – to repair the world through both acts of kindness as well as through acts of change.

So, to answer the original question – I do not believe observing is enough.  Sometimes, as our protagonist learned, observing is all we can do in the initial moment.  But it should not end there.

Published by jesschasen

Temple Emanuel Sisterhood - Past President 2019-2020 Temple Emanuel - Interim Executive Director

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