On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.
The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”
We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.
Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.
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.
I prefer to get my news by listening to public radio. Because I’m a visual learner, I’m forced to concentrate more to catch all the details, so I find that listening to the news keeps me better informed. Because I’m sensitive, I try to avoid graphic pictures and videos on television and social media; when I do see a disturbing image, it tends to get stuck in my mind.
Hearing of the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officers involved in Eric Garner’s death, feeling frustrated that I could not take to the streets of NYC with my colleagues to protest, I turned on the television to watch the news unfold. Inadvertently, I also watched the video that I’d previously managed to avoid, the video that captured one officer subduing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, another holding his head against the pavement, pushing with both hands and exerting what appeared to be excessive force. Seeing a broadcast of these final, violent moments of Garner’s life left me feeling depleted.
I recognize that a few moments of video footage cannot adequately show everything that may be apparent to those who are physically present. Eye witnesses’ vision can also be distorted; despite that we possess greater peripheral vision than a camera lens, our eyes offer a limited view of the world around us. We sometimes rely on others to report what they are seeing when we are out of visual range, and even when we can see with our own eyes, we don’t always understand what we see. Our eyes convey images to our brains, where the information is stored in memory and can be revisited…and revised. We remember our initial, emotional response to what we’ve seen and reinterpret its significance.
Because our eyes can lead us astray, God commands Moses to tell the people of Israel to put fringes on the corners of their garments: “And you shall have the fringe so you will see it and bring to mind all of God’s commandments and will do them, and you will not go around after your heart and after your eyes, because you whore after them.” (Numbers 15:39, according to Professor Friedman’s translation) The tzitzit, fringes, are intended to cause a positive association with God, to help our eyes guide us toward holiness. Wrapping in garments and gazing at the fringes, we prevent ourselves from being misled by our imperfect vision, from being seduced by our desire to possess things, from being influenced by people who would lead us away from God.
I am haunted by the idea that my eyes deceive me.
A week ago, I was walking home from the park with my dog, when I saw tree branches poking out of a pile of dead leaves next to the sidewalk. The dog began to pull me toward the branches—she perceived with her keen sense of smell what I could not see clearly—and as she dragged me closer to them, I saw they were not branches but the head of a young buck. He was lying in perfect stillness, as if he’d stopped to catch his breath before heading up the hill and into the crosswalk. But I could see that his eyes, with their glassy sheen, were not blinking. He was beautiful in lifeless repose.
This is not an image of graphic violence, yet it returns to me when I watch Eric Garner cease to struggle as he is lowered to the ground. They are both lying—the deer and the man—empty of breath. I close my eyes to see with my heart, and resolve that tomorrow I will return to listening without watching the news.
I do not want to write about the horrific deaths of the three Israeli boys. I had other things I planned to talk about this week, but I do not feel that it would be right to talk about anything else, anything more trivial.
I do not want to talk about horror, or violence, or the hollow feelings that watching the news over the past two days has left with me.
There is nothing, Not. One. Thing. I can do to ease the parents’ pain; to undo the senseless, vile, killing; to make anything about this situation in any way better.
Nor can anyone else, although many people are trying, in all the wrong ways: by creating Facebook groups calling for revenge, by killing a young Palestinian boy, by marching through the streets chanting for the deaths of people based on their ethnicity.
None of this will assuage one drop of the pain caused by these boys’ loss. It will not ease the fear felt by many parents, or even the more general fear of anti-Jewish feeling or actions by some Arabs. All that feeling seemingly must go somewhere, and I understand that people are desperately looking for a place to spend it, to get rid of their fear and horror and sick,sick, worry. But pouring it out in the streets like sewage bursting its pipe—how can this happen?
I don’t want to talk about this. About any of this. In addition to the sorrow of the loss of those children, I now feel harrowed by the horror of seeing racial violence in the streets of Israel, by Jews. In seeing some people, whom I otherwise had respect for, advocating its rightness. But I think we have to talk about it.
The family of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel has been a model of dignity and yahadut (Jewish values) in their tragedy, saying it would be “horrifying and despicable” for the Palestinian boy to have been murdered in revenge, and the boy’s uncle, Yishai Fraenkel, said, “There is no difference between blood and blood. A murderer is a murderer, no matter his nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.”
Must we make the families of the murdered be our rebukers in their time of sorrow? What a terrible burden to place upon them.
How did we get to this place?
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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”?!
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.
Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.
Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.
Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.
Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world? Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?
So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.
We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.
The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary. Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:
“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”
The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
A friend of mine recently posted a link to this blog post about a screening of an Israeli film titled Six Acts. I found the post profoundly disturbing, not only because the facilitator of the discussion whose point was to reduce rape, apparently had very little awareness of the facts of sexual violence, or even because of the comments made by organizers and audience members. I felt disturbed as well because we see such a great deal of sexual violence in our society and we are inclined to write it off in various ways.
As a human being, and as a citizen, it should be enough to disturb me. But as a Jew, I feel that there is a great deal more to be said, and I fear that we are not having these conversations in our community at least in part because in the Jewish community, we struggle with modernity in more than one way:
First, because many liberal Jews wear our “Jewish lenses”—our framing of the world in Jewish terms- too lightly, and we don’t take seriously the idea of sex as a form of intimacy and holiness, whose performance echoes the divine unification of God. And we do not teach sexuality as a sacred act, which is private and precious, rather than an act which is “for fun.”
And second, we also struggle with the reality that in Jewish culture itself, there is a deep inequality between men and women built into our halachic (legal) system. Even though we in the liberal Jewish communities give lip service to egalitarianism, in reality we have not achieved it, neither in our institutions, nor in our personal lives. A cursory examination of the leadership of our institutions (overwhelmingly male at the top) inequality of pay among not only clergy but also the extreme levels of low pay for traditionally female jobs (including regular airing of news stories in various iterations of Jewish press showing preschool teachers and social workers on welfare).
While these items don’t even begin to match the horror of the situation described in the blog post, they are reflections both of our schizophrenic attitudes towards women, and of the unresolved tensions in our two cultures in dealing with women.
Certainly, the secular culture, too, is deeply invested in not examining its attitudes towards sex and sexuality and women. However, as a Jew and a rabbi, I believe that we are failing our communities in not speaking—yes, explicitly speaking—about sex, violence, and sexism, and about how Jewish tradition talks about all of these matter—both for good and in ways that we should find disturbing- and in what ways Jewish tradition can offer a better way.
**In the DC area, the excellent organization JCADA offers resources for victims of domestic violence. Jewish family services also often offer counseling services. The (secular) organization RAINN can help the victims of sexual violence find a variety of support services, and all RAINN affiliates offer 24 hour crisis hotlines. If you or someone you love has been a victim of sexual or domestic violence, please contact someone who can help you.
The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”
I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.
However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day. Young women, low-income women, and some minorities are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and rape. Women ages 20-24 are at greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence, and women age 24 and under suffer from the highest rates of rape. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and that less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.( Statistics can be found here. )
I fear that this book sends the message that violent acts as part of sexual play is okay. I know that in the story Ana has to consent to everything. However from the start, she and Christian are not on an even playing field. He holds the power. He has more money, knowledge, and experience than her. She is in the under-24-years-old demographic. I fear that many women will be hurt physically and emotionally by putting themselves in the hands of men who don’t know when to stop, who will push the pain element too far, who will not hear the safeword.
There is no grey area here. Sex and violence do not go together. One is an act of love; the other is an act of hate. Millions of women suffer each year at the hands of abusive men. This is not sexy or alluring.
I wish I could quote a text from Jewish tradition which clearly says “Thou shalt not hit your lover.” But nothing is that clear. Jewish law however has built in many statues to safeguard vulnerable women from others’ abuses. Widows must be taken care of, and male family members are admonished not to have sex with female relatives. In addition, the stories of the rape of Dina and Tamar make it clear that raping a woman is a punishable act. Unlike the Christian tradition, Judaism does not see sex itself as shameful. But many structures are put in place so that sex is a pleasurable act between consenting adults, not a violent one.
If you enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, please take a moment to think about what you enjoyed about the book. And reflect on some of the messages it sends, particularly to young women who may not have the wherewithal to stand up to a dominating man. As women, we need to talk about the interplay between sex and violence so that we can protect ourselves. If this book helps to open up that conversation then I am glad that it has come out of the closet.