When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right. Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.
With seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.
“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”
“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy? Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”
“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”
“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”
“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.
Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.
There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.
When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.
Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ” -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).
As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”
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I recently spent some time at a gun range in a class that provided an introduction to guns. During my class I was shown how to safely hold and fire a pistol, a revolver, a rifle, and an AK47. I’ve always been quite good at fairground rifle ranges, picking up a few prizes in my teens. I have to say that I enjoyed the target practice, and it was quite exciting to have the opportunity to learn how to fire these guns. I’d go back and do it again. My instructor was professional, and at the end asked if any of us was interested in taking further classes to obtain a gun license, but there was no propaganda and no hard sell.
While I was there I observed many people coming and going, the majority of them middle-aged husbands and wives, stopping in for some target practice. I asked my instructor how many people who belonged to this school bought their own guns vs how many simply used the considerable selection available in the school. He estimated that about 70% probably had their own. This in a state with very strict carry restrictions. These guns are meant to remain unloaded, in a locked cabinet at home. They are brought in a locked case to the gun range. They are opened up on the range, then loaded and fired. Yet 70% of the people coming back and forth felt the desire to buy one or more guns of their own. I was struck by how much potential risk was being introduced into so many lives by that one statistic. Guns that might be accessed in a marital dispute. Guns that might be played with by a child who accidentally injures themselves or a friend. Guns that might be picked up in a moment of suicidal despair. Guns that might be stolen in a burglary and sold on the black market to other criminals.
There are an estimated 270-310 millions guns owned by citizens in the U.S. A quick glance at The Gun Report indicates how many of the thousands of incidents of gun violence a year fall into one of the above categories. Guns are clearly a sensitive topic of conversation in the USA. There’s plenty of room for debate about precisely what kinds of actions or laws could be effective or should be enacted. But 74 school-based shootings after Newtown, one thing seems clear – gun violence in the U.S. is out of control. When, instead of figuring out how to reduce the amount of gun violence in our society we appear to be resigned to a new reality, instead creating bullet-proof blankets for children to hide under in their schools, it’s well past time to stop the insanity and take another look at our assumptions.
While there are some contributing factors to this that are more complex to define and solve, there is little question in my mind that some universally accepted and enforced gun control and registration process would be at least a step in the right direction. It’s not only a pragmatic thing to do; it’s also the Jewish thing to do. Centuries before guns had even entered the imaginations of those who sought to exert power and control over others through violence, Jewish thinkers had already applied the wisdom and ethics of our faith tradition to consider what kinds of obligations we had to mitigate the potential harm that the existence and ownership of dangerous things could cause to others.
We see this concern first expressed in the Torah itself, with regard to building a house:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]” (Deut. 22:8).
Rabbinic commentary on this verse extrapolates from this that we need “fences” to provide some additional protection from anything that could cause harm to another, to ensure that we don’t accidentally come to cause blood to be spilled. The text doesn’t ban flat roofs, but it does emphasize our obligation to take necessary precautions. Applied to the context of guns, this certainly provides a solid basis for thinking about all the things we could be doing to minimize the danger that guns bring into our homes, our schools, and our communities.
From the Talmud, we find another teaching that, when extrapolated, seems to go further:
R. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text (Deut. 24:8), “You shall bring not blood upon your house.” Talmud, Bava Kama 46a
If we think more broadly about the application of the proof-text quoted from Deut. 24:8, we might conclude that we should not knowingly bring into our homes things where there is a high risk that they will eventually cause harm to someone. Certainly there would be some who would make the case that by keeping a gun at home they could prevent the bloodshed of their family were an armed attacker to enter that home. But for that to even be a likely scenario, that gun would have to be kept, unsecured, immediately accessible, and loaded to do someone any good. And in the meantime, that is a deadly weapon that is sitting around each and every day that is far more likely to end up causing harm to those same loved ones. Other commentaries on this talmudic teaching suggest that it is ok to own a dangerous dog if it is kept chained up at all times. This would bring us back to the need for incredibly secure gun safes, with ammunition kept equally safe and separate from the gun, being a requirement of gun ownership.
There are additional references in rabbinic discussions in the Talmud that prohibit the sale of weapons to those who are believed to want to cause us harm (Avodah Zarah 15b; YD 151:5-6). The application of these teachings would certainly support the idea of universal background checks and the kind of licensing and tracking of gun purchases that might truly have an impact on the ease with which criminals can obtain guns.
Like many, I am heart-sickened by the daily reports of more deaths by gun violence. I believe that we have the ability and the obligation to enact some changes to our laws and our culture that would make a real difference. I see no responsible, ethical basis for the recent stories we have heard of some States and localities moving in the opposite direction. When will we say “enough”?!
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This week, we have heard endless blatheration on what Trayvon Martin should have done, whether Zimmerman was legally culpable, whether he was morally culpable. I’ve been told by people who know the law that the case couldn’t have turned out any other way.
I can’t stop thinking about this case – as is true of so many of us. Not because I’m shocked by the outcome. Quite the contrary. But because I’m shocked by the reactions of people I know to the outcome. Not everyone, of course. but the litany of excuses from people whom I otherwise like or respect, I just find it amazing to hear them.
I’ve read up on the law, on the case. I’ve seen a recent study about Stand Your Ground laws and how they increase racism in the courtroom. I’ve read the responses from black men, who fear for themselves, or their children, or who merely speak with resignation. I’ve heard from friends whose children are black boys, who are worried about the risks they take whenever they walk out the door.
Over the last year, I’ve tried to be more open in my opinions; to listen more carefully and more openly to those who disagree with me about things I consider fundamentally important. It is difficult, sometimes, but I find myself able to do it. But this is different. I simply cannot hear one more person saying that Martin was a thug, or that he should have done something different: what could he have done?
I have written my pieces on Judaism and gun control. I’ve nothing to add. I realize this blog is supposed to be a repository of Jewish text or wisdom, but I’ve nothing to add here either. Today, I am only thinking of the children of color whom I have worked with in Barry Farms who, with their families, did the best they could with the almost nothing that they had, and whose chances of getting out are low, and further stymied by the recent upending of affirmative action programs in colleges, and the uprooting of voter rights protections, and who if they do get out, may simply face a violent death because someone is afraid of their skin, knowing nothing about them, and then, if they are gunned down, will be put on trial for their own murder.
We have just passed through Tisha B’Av, in which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, twice. First for idolatry, and again for sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This smacks of both. Our societal idolatry of the individual, the individual’s right to do whatever makes them feel good, even if in the aggregate, the lives of many others are damaged or destroyed; the hatred of those – sometimes even without our noticing- who frighten us, because of their skin color, or origin, or religion.
I excuse myself from none of this, because I live in this society, and I benefit from its institutionalized racisms and privileges and because I haven’t done enough to change it.
In my exile from the just and the true and the good, I sit and I weep. Perhaps at least I know I am in exile. Perhaps that is at least a start. That’s it; I have no other words for you.
A couple of weeks ago, Yair Rosenberg wrote a thought-provoking article in the online Tablet Magazine, entitled ‘America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats: Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.’
The starting place for the article is a reaction to the lack of critical commentary to a group of clergy going to Washington to bring attention to National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. Imagine, Rosenberg asks, if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington to promote a campaign advocating against abortion. There would, he contends, be an outcry from liberal commentators and politicians about such a religious encroachment on national politics. And yet there did not appear to be any such outcry to the clergy speaking out against gun violence, and the legislative demands that went with it.
Rosenberg goes on to examine what he sees as a double-standard in public response when religious conservatism is expressed in the public square vs religious liberalism. He argues: “In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.”
Ultimately, Rosenberg calls for more honesty and consistency when talking about the role of religion in politics. He makes a good point. As someone born and raised in the UK, where there is no constitutional separation of church and state and yet the country as a whole is far less driven by religiously-based interests, I have always been struck by the extent of religious presence in the public sphere in the USA. Presidential candidates are examined for signs of an authentic religious life, and this seems to matter in political commentary. Over time, I have come to understand the importance of my contributions to public conversation on many issues that have a political dimension – I believe that to abstain from all of these issues is to render ourselves irrelevant.
Legislation is one response to shaping the kind of society we want to live in, but to abstain from bringing one’s religious heritage and wisdom teachings to that conversation is to present Judaism as having nothing to say about daily communal life. And Judaism, especially but not uniquely, has always been a religion that embraced life holistically, with laws and wisdom on how we do business with each other, how we take care of the vulnerable in society, as well as how we pray and celebrate Jewish festivals.
But Rosenberg isn’t arguing for abstention from the political realm. He’s simply asking for equal treatment of those who draw on their understanding of religious wisdom to present more conservative viewpoints as those who present liberal ones. I agree with the general premise – surely we should allow all contributions to stand on their own feet in the public square? And I think they do. That also means that we must be willing to hear all of the responses that we will hear when we voice these opinions. There is no organized cabal that is critiquing one set of religious viewpoints but not another. The kinds of responses we hear tell us something about the society we live in, and the other competing perspectives that are being brought to bear on the same core questions of life and community that clergy, politicians, social workers, teachers, journalists, and private corporations are all addressing in very different ways.
But for me, there is another component to consider when I think about how and when I draw on my understanding of our faith-based wisdom to offer commentary on matters that are currently being debated in the political realm. And here, I believe, there is often but not always a difference between more conservative and more liberal religious voices that shines a light on the juxtaposition of religion and politics in a different way. It is often the case that conservative voices, by their nature, advocate for a more restrictive perspective on a range of issues – a more limited definition of marriage, a more limited view on when life begins and, being conservative in nature, tend to lean toward preserving the status quo.
As a more liberal leaning rabbi, I often find myself asking two different questions: 1) does my faith tradition have wisdom to offer on how I and/or my faith community should act in this situation? 2) what kind of framework in my secular society enables me to achieve 1)? So, for me, I’m going to speak out against more conservative positions on abortion that deny me the right to make choices based on Jewish wisdom. However, the existence of more liberal laws on abortion in this country do not prevent someone, guided by a more conservative faith, from making more restrictive choices. I, personally, guided by Jewish wisdom, am against assisted suicide. But when legislation in the state of Massachusetts was brought up at the last election that considered a way of permitting some form of this, the study and conversation that I had with my congregants both shared and explored the ideas behind Jewish teachings on this topic yet also raised the question of whether our choices based on our beliefs should lead to legislation that limits everyone else in our State to our religiously-informed position.
If someone truly believes that aborting any fetus is murder, and that preventing this is more important than all other considerations, then they will feel compelled to advocate for national, secular laws, that prevent such as act. I can understand why this belief leads to this outcome, but I can also understand why they will face powerful opposition from a large proportion of Americans who do not share their belief. And this, I believe, is where Rosenberg’s call for fairness in treatment is too simplistic. Depending on the issue at stake, a position that makes restrictive choices for all in national legislation demands a different level of scrutiny than a position that is less restrictive (but still allows for individuals to make more restrictive choices).
Another element that plays into these debates, independent of whether a position is liberal or conservative, is whether the issue affects individual freedoms or the community as a whole. And this one is much more complex. In fact, what we often see played out in the political sphere is the framing of an issue in different ways that emphasize these different frameworks. For example, a proponent of gun rights is likely to emphasize their individual rights according to the constitution. A proponent of gun control is likely to argue that some of those individual rights have to be restricted when the effect of exercising them leads to the deaths of innocent victims – a communal framework. Proponents of gay marriage emphasize the civil rights of individuals within our society. Opponents draw on arguments that emphasize their perception of the changes it will bring to society as a whole. In a country that, culturally, heavily emphasizes individual autonomy, political positions that emphasize individual rights tend to play better in the public square. When they don’t it is because the case for the greater good has been powerfully made.
Where does this leave us as clergy contributing to these debates in the public sphere? Ultimately, I believe it leaves us as offering the wisdom that we have gleaned from our faith traditions as useful and legitimate input to the public square. Self-awareness and, perhaps, some humility, will enable us to discern how best to use our voices and understand the larger landscape of which we are just a small part.
First we cry, then we act.
The murders that occurred on Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are beyond my comprehension. How could something like this happen? As a parent of a seven year old, I just cried a upon hearing the news. The sadness I felt was overwhelming.
As a rabbi, I cannot even begin to offer a pat theology of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no explanation. Instead I raise my voice and my fists at God and yell, “Why? How could this happen?” I say angry, hateful things to God. I feel safe doing this because I know God can take my anger. God is the receptacle for my emotions, my deep sadness, anger, and terror, it all goes there. Why not? It has to go somewhere.
When I was done crying, I picked my daughter up early from a play date and got ready for Shabbat. Shabbat gave me a break from listening to the news and Googleing the latest information. I had some time to sit with my emotions. It helped.
The minute Shabbat was over, I was ready to act. The Ethical Culture Society in my town organized a vigil to end gun violence Saturday night. My husband and I canceled our plans for a fun night out, and joined the vigil. Sunday morning, I spent time signing petitions being sent to the president and my representatives in Washington calling on them to enact legislation to strengthen our gun laws. I donated to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence . We must outlaw semi-automatic weapons. There is no reason they should be in our hands. We must make it harder for a person to purchase a gun. I am all for background checks, waiting periods, licensing, continuing education in order to hold on to your license, and high taxes on guns and bullets. We enact many regulations to enforce public safety. It is past time that these regulations apply to guns as well.
If it were up to me, I would outlaw all hand guns. Unfortunately I know that will not happen. And I know that no matter how many laws we put in place people who really want guns will get their hands on them. But this should not stop us from making it harder! There are more gun deaths in the US than any other developed country. This is simply unacceptable.
I believe that we live in partnership with God. We both impact events. God was not able to stop this shooting from taking place. But God is here as a support structure to help us get through the aftermath. My role, and your role, is to do what we can on this earth to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Organize locally, call Washington, let’s do our best to get guns out of our homes and off our streets. It is time.