Thursday, October 7, 2010


Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
--Psalm 55:5

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the fatal attack on Matthew Shepard, whose murder inspired a public outcry against prejudice, hatred, and homophobia. On such a somber occasion, it felt right to me to recall the Jewish middah (virtue) of Aymah (Horror).

Aymah may seem to be a curious choice for a virtue; we’re so accustomed to Courage, found as a virtue in literally dozens of cultures, that to acknowledge its converse seems bizarre. How can fearfulness be a beneficial trait worth emulating? 

The sense of Aymah has more to do with the dread we feel when recognizing the suffering and injustice in the world. As Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Renée Holtz, and Birgit R. Sacher explain on the URJ website:

The virtue in aymah is not in our ability to incite fear or horror, but rather in our capacity to be horrified by conditions or circumstances in the world. Judaism demands that we respond to evil and injustice. Our system of mitzvoth, or commandments, teach us how to react. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "We are taught to be mitzvah-conscious in regard to the present moment, to be mindful of the constant opportunity to do the good thing." (God In Search of Man p. 363)

Thus, Aymah describes the horror we feel when we stare into the abyss of human ignorance and hate, and the associated urge to do something about it. I think that applies to all human beings, whether we practice in the Jewish faith or not. ;-)

The morning I heard about Matthew Shepard’s death, I was getting ready for a day of lectures during my second year of medical school, and Aymah well describes how I felt when I heard the story. (It is said that the bicyclist who discovered Matt Shepard was so confused by the battered state of the body he initially thought it was a scarecrow, not a living human being--an apt metaphor for inducing a sense of dread.) This was October 11, 1998, a few days after the attack, and also (by chance) National Coming Out Day. So I stopped by the Castro to buy a bucket of pink carnations, and passed them out to fellow med students to wear in recognition that all people, gay or straight, must combat homophobia. At the time I had no idea Matthew Shepard's story would become a cause célèbre.

Matthew Shepard’s death inspired a wave of anti-hate activism, best exemplified by his wonderful mother, Judy Shepard. Thanks to her work and that of others, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law not quite a year ago. It amazes me that it took that long; Judy Shepard actually had to hear one Republican representative describe her son’s death as a hoax. (I shudder with Aymah.)

Another reaction to the murder was The Laramie Project, a play and later a film containing interviews with people from the town of Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew was killed. In the following excerpt, Matthew’s father describes how he reacted to his son’s death. Knowing the hardships in Matthew’s all-too-brief life, it made me cry. It’s 3 minutes and worth a view:

Even in the 21st century, gay youth remain targets of harassment. All of us recall last month's suicide of 19-year-old Tyler Clementi after his college roommate violated his privacy by posting video images of him having sex with another man on Facebook. The story has brought forth messages of support and not a few of Aymah. Efforts to reach out to gay youth, such as columnist Dan Savage's project It Gets Better, have received deserved attention. 

Today, let us recall our own moments of Aymah, whether from hearing news stories like the deaths of Matthew Shepard or Tyler Clementi, watching the despoiling of the Gulf by an oil spill, or witnessing the pain and suffering of our fellow living beings. Bring to mind how our capacity to feel Aymah, fear, can temper us, like a steel blade, to become a  Divine tool of action and response.

May we see the gates of Aymah, and perhaps make a home there.

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