In Psalm 145, which has been incorporated into our liturgy as the "Ashrei" prayer, we read, "Shomer Adonai et kol ohavav, v'et mol ha-r'sha'im yashmid- God preserves all who love God, but all the wicked, God shall destroy." Many Jews likely recite this verse without considering the theology behind it. Does God really pick sides? What is the dividing point between a good person and a wicked one?
Fred Phelps, Sr. long thought that he had the answer to that question. In a selectively literalist reading of the Bible, he and the followers of his Westboro Baptist Church determined that homosexuality was the greatest affront to God, and set out to let the world know that God hates gays (though the church's preferred signage used far more colorful language). Westboro Baptist became infamous and Phelps was widely excoriated for promoting hateful messages, rather than celebrating God's love. More recently, they drew themselves further into the annals of infamy by picketing the funerals of American servicemen and -women, victims of school shootings, and others whose deaths they claimed were acts of divine retribution against American immorality.
Since Phelps' name became so strongly identified with his bigoted actions, it seems that few would be disappointed if he were to fade from the national scene. And indeed, when news reports stated that Phelps had entered hospice and was close to death, many who had been the target of Phelps' ire took a degree of delight in seeing their adversary confront mortality.
But, even for someone who appears to be irredeemably, unrepentantly evil, can we not find a bit of rochmanus (compassion)? Should we delight in another's demise? Jewish tradition seems to reject such behavior, noting that when the Jews emerged victorious onto the far shores of the Sea of Reeds, God paused for a moment to mourn for the drowned Egyptians, for they, too, were God's creation. In that vein, should we not also show a degree of mercy to an enemy such as Phelps? In suggesting this, I do not mean to diminish for a moment the pain inflicted by Phelps and his followers on my LGBTQ friends and the other targets of the Westboro Baptist Church. But I do feel that two wrongs don't make a right.
If the news stories are correct (and, admittedly, they may not be; the church is very private, and has refused to corroborate reports from Phelps' estranged sons), Phelps died late on March 19, reportedly he spent his last days as a fairly sad and lonely man, having been excommunicated last year from the church he founded. We can only speculate as to whether this exclusion was due to Phelps perhaps repudiating past statements and behaviors, or whether perhaps other things led to the rift.
I can't help but feel that there is a parallel to be drawn here between Phelps' demise and the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parashat Shemini. In the portion, we read about the inaugural public offering that Aaron and his sons made to Adonai. It must have been quite the spectacle, as "fire came forth before God." Later, we read that Nadav and Abihu- perhaps in an effort to replicate the majesty of that first offering- burnt strange incense in tribute to God and met an untimely death.
This episode is strange and troubling; Nadav and Abihu were among God's most elite (and, presumably, most beloved). That they should meet such an ignominious end runs counter to our expectations. Shouldn't they, of all people, have been in God's good graces? Shouldn't they have known what would please God and what would be upsetting?
The biblical episode concludes somewhat abruptly and shockingly. God proclaims, through Moses, בקרובי אקדש bik'rovai akadesh, "I am made holy by those who are closest to Me." And, rather than recording any expression of emotion, the Torah states, וידום אהרון vayidom Aharon, "And Aaron was silent."
These two statements have long troubled many readers of this text. In part, that's the beauty of Torah- it invites us to grapple with difficult passages and does not sugar-coat things. Nadav and Abihu do not get off easily n our tradition; the rabbis are certain that if they died so violently, there must have been good reason. And so they trip all over themselves to find or invent one. But the bottom line is this: even though they were sanctified as priests, and specially selected to do God's holy work, they erred in some way that forced God to make an example of them. God had to destroy them, as if to say, "They thought, because of their special station, that they were protected and no harm could befall them. But they were presumptuous in exploiting their special connection to Me. This is what I mean when I say bik'rovai akadesh: 'By those who are truly close to Me, who take the time to understand My true nature and desires, do I wish to be sanctified."
Phelps was just the latest in a long line of sanctimonious, self-righteous religious figures who claimed to have direct insight into God's needs, and desires. Undoubtedly, others will arise to take his place. But ultimately, I don't think God is pleased by individuals who stand in judgment of their fellow human beings. I don't think God is sanctified by homophobia, bigotry, and other forms of hatred that hide behind religiosity and the Divine Name.
Instead, I think we do best to recall more words from the Ashrei prayer: Karov Adonai l'chol kor'av, l'chol asher yikrauhu b'emet- "God is near to all who call/ to all who call upon God in truth." If we seek closeness and community with God for God's glory, and not for our own, then we become holy, and we may bring God to a higher level of holiness as well.
(tl; dr: God hates hate)