Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“How should I respond to my congregants who express fear, helplessness, and hopelessness about school lockdowns and assault weapons in the hands of crazy people?”
I asked this question after an “active shooter” school lockdown in my New York county. I directed my question to my 1,500 Facebook friends – not a scientific sample, but still beautifully diverse in place, race, age, religion and politics. Their replies spoke volumes about the gap between head and heart, and about the right roles of spirit and advocacy.
Some responses focused on guns. Of these, some advocated assault weapon bans. Some retorted that “guns don’t kill people: people kill people.” Some urged confronting gun fears by having gun education in the synagogue.
Other responses focused on shooters. Of these, some advocated gun-access limits. Some rejected pejorative words like “crazy” that stigmatize mental illness. (I clarified that such words weren’t mine.) Some pressed investments in social services and rehabilitation.
On it rolled, down a rabbit hole of online noise. As fast as I asked my question about congregant emotions and clergy roles, well-meaning Facebook friends hijacked it.
Wise policy debate is vital. I should know. I have 20 years of training and career service in public policy. I’ve taught policy design and implementation in graduate school. I’ve run successful policy campaigns. I’ve done electoral politics at every level. I can use robust standard errors to refine heteroskedastic data sets. Wise policy debates get my juices flowing, with good reason: wise policy debate is the purpose of our democracy.
But my Facebook question wasn’t about policy or democracy. My question asked how we should respond to feelings of fear and lack of control. The “answers” I got were outcome-based arguments, most of them merely sound-byte pablum – thin gruel far from the real policy debate. In the process, these “answers” missed my question entirely.
Amidst the tumult of modern politics, noise passing for news, pablum passing for policy and diseases afflicting our democracy, we’re prone to forget something crucial. We can’t do right by people – which is the real purpose of democracy – unless we recognize both the head and the heart in every debate. The head is the intellectual realm of economics, incentives, law, rights, and responsibilities. The heart is the emotional realm of joy, pride, anger, fear, hope, agency, and helplessness. Society can’t thrive, or get far on policy, by focusing only on one realm – any more than most bicyclists can pedal far on one wheel.
My question asked about the heart, but most answers aimed at the head. While head and heart are connected – ask any preacher or political psychologist! – they are distinct. Each speaks its own language. Each has its own priorities, tools, and goals.
No policy debate can comfort a child or a child’s parent, or calm a shooter or a shooter’s family, or balm a shooter’s victims or their families. No claim however accurate can offer hope. No argument however cogent can heal. Heady stuff often talks past the heart: one who feels afraid rarely feels less afraid for being told that one shouldn’t feel fear. Whatever a brain might think, each heart knows its bitterness and joy (Proverbs 14:10).
At the same time, emotional wisdom isn’t enough to enact wise policy, mobilize voters or enforce the law fairly and effectively. Even an infinitely compassionate heart can’t gather accurate data, fully analyze a situation, draft a bill, run a campaign, organize advocates, lobby lawmakers or break a filibuster. Feelings are important, but a wise world can’t run only on feelings. Facts matter, actions matter, consequences matter.
When we treat policy debate as severable from human impact, when we de-link head from heart, we do violence to people. This kind of violence may seem less bloody than gunshot wounds, but it’s still violence. As a wise friend recently reminded me, a wise answer doesn’t answer the question: it answers the person.
Today real persons are suffering. Kids are afraid. Parents are afraid. Teachers are afraid. The toll on educators, first responders, trauma surgeons, and therapists is rising. They need wise answers from the head, and they need wise answers from the heart.
As shooters aim their guns to target people, we must aim ourselves to target the heart as well as the head.
Dedicated to the children.