Friday, December 21, 2012

Vayyiggash 5773: The Jewish Solution to Gun Violence

Many of you know that I just returned from Israel five days ago. (I think I just got over the jetlag this morning.) Calm has prevailed since the operation in Gaza ended a month ago, and Israelis go on about their lives, as they usually do.
Every time I go back to Israel, however, and I do so at least twice a year, I cannot help but think about Jewish identity - what it means to be Jewish, and particularly what it means to live as a modern Jew in a secular, democratic world.
My Israeli son Oryah is now almost 12, and the girls in his class are now celebrating their benot mitzvah. He goes to a secular school, so their bat mitzvah celebrations are just fancy parties, nothing more -- no religious component. No being called to the Torah, no remarks on the weekly parashah, no berakhah by the parents, and so forth.
As it turns out, our time together included two benei mitzvah celebrations.  The first was the bar mitzvah of a cousin in Tel Aviv. This family is also devoutly secular, but for some reason chose to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue. It was at night, but as is customary in some Reform congregations, the Torah was taken out and the bar mitzvah boy chanted from it as relatives were called up for aliyot. At the dinner reception afterward, I asked Oryah if he thought this experience would be different from his classmate’s bat mitzvah that he would be attending the following day.
Abba,” he said regarding his female friend’s family, “They’re not Jews. They’re just Israelis.”
I was captivated by this answer. Not Jews, just Israelis. We chatted for a few minutes about what it means to be Jewish, and maybe that cleared up the matter (at least for me). But for him, there was no confusion: Jews go to synagogue. “Just Israelis” don’t. Very simple.
Perhaps one of my main interests as a rabbi is helping us learn what it means to be Jewish today: how do we incorporate Judaism and Jewish values into our lives, what does Judaism teach us about all of the features of contemporary society, how can Judaism help us navigate the choices that face our families, our businesses, our education, and so forth. Central to these concepts is the very question of identity: are we Jewish Americans? Are we American Jews? How does our allegiance to this great nation interact with our commitment to the State of Israel, our cousins who live there, and the special challenges they face?
I suppose that these questions are particularly relevant in December. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, a place that was home to fewer Jews than the first couple of rows in this sanctuary. As such, it was a constant struggle for me to define myself. I was in many ways just like my classmates, except that I did not go to church or celebrate Christmas or Easter.
All the more so, the question of Jewish identity is at the forefront of my mind right now, because I am struggling to find a Jewish response to the tragedy that occurred eight days ago in Connecticut. In preparation for teaching my Youth House class this past Tuesday, Rabbi Stecker suggested to talk with the students about how we should respond as Jews. That is, what does Judaism teach us that might be helpful in managing our grief, counseling our families, and preventing such horrible things from happening again.
This is, of course, not so easy. And also not so easy for us to separate our Jewish identity here from our American identity. In today’s parashah, we read about Joseph, effectively the first diaspora Jew, and his managing the seven years of good crops and seven years of famine on behalf of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Joseph creates what seems to be the first recorded centrally-planned economy, and he is not an Egyptian, even though he has an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. An outsider, he succeeds in fundamentally changing the agricultural system of Egypt.
We are fortunate to be living in a place and time in which Jews are not considered outsiders; we are fully welcome in American society, and for most of us, our American identity is more relevant than our Jewish identity.  
However, it is sometimes possible to separate our American-ness from our Jewish-ness, and in the case of this tragedy, I think we may respond as Jews as well as Americans.
We have responded as Jews by reciting words of prayer today, gathered as we do on every Shabbat. We have responded by turning to God with the hard questions. But we also need to respond by making sure that such a thing never happens again.
In responding to the tragedy in Newtown, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited his Jewish background in an interview on the subject, when he said, “I don’t know what your religion teaches you; mine teaches you to take care of each other.”
What was he talking about? Let’s take a look.
The Torah tells us the following (Leviticus 19:16):
לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
Do not stand by the blood of your fellow; I am the Lord.
In other words, don’t pursue your livelihood at the expense of another’s life. Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that we are required pre-emptively to protect the safety of others (Deuteronomy 22:8):
כִּי תִּבְנֶה בַּיִּת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִּיתָ מַּעֲקֶה לְגַּגֶךָ וְלֹא תָשִּים דָמִּים בְבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִּפֹּל הַּנֹּפֵל מִּמֶנוּ:
When you build a new house, then you shall make a fence around your roof, that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone falls from there.
In other words, we are required by the Torah to take steps to prevent anybody from being hurt, even where the potentially injured might be somewhat at fault.

But clearly these statements are general; they are not specific to our case. However, an essential principle in rabbinic law is the idea of “Siyyag laTorah,” that is, building a fence around the Torah. Let me explain what this means.

One of the best-known principles of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) is the separation of meat and dairy. The Torah says, “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” (Deuteronomy 14:13) Interpreting on the basis of siyyag laTorah in later centuries, rabbis of the Talmudic period extended this straightforward prohibition into a complex series of sub-prohibitions, including having separate pieces of cookware and silverware and plates, waiting a certain period of time between consumption of meat and dairy, and processes by which things that were accidentally contaminated could be rendered “kosher,” i.e. fitting, once again. This series of fences has made absolutely certain that the law could not be trampled upon.

Or consider the Shabbat. The Torah tells us to “Remember the Shabbat to keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8) and forbids on Shabbat the performance of something called “melakhah,” which we generally translate as “work.” Later rabbinic interpreters extended melakhah to include 39 categories of work, including such things as harvesting, sewing, writing, building, lighting fires, and so forth. Further interpretation yielded a set of guidelines that set Shabbat aside as a truly unique opportunity to disconnect from the pace of our crazy lives, and enjoy those things that are most valuable: spending time with family and friends, and getting re-acquainted with God.

How do we build a siyyag laTorah, a fence to prevent episodes like that which took place last week, or the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, or at Columbine High School in 1999, or the one at the University of Texas in 1966, or indeed each of the more than 10,000 homicides perpetrated with firearms each year in this country? We think like Jews: we build fences.

The rabbis of the Talmud, reading from the sources I mentioned above and from elsewhere in the Torah, declared that (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a):
שכל ממאבד נפש אחת מישראל - מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל - מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא.
Anyone who causes one life to be lost... it is as if they have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves one life... it is as if they have preserved an entire world.
(Yes, I know the text refers only to Jews. But as modern people who are an integral part of the fabric of largely non-Jewish society, we are also required to pursue justice for all those who live around us.)

Elsewhere the rabbis prohibited selling weapons and carrying weapons, noting that these activities are disgraceful and dangerous (Mishnah Shabbat 6:4, Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 15b and Makkot 10a, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 12:12).

We who do not seek to prevent such tragedies by any means possible are guilty of standing by while others suffer; we are guilty of destroying the entire world. On the day after Sandy Hook, news outlets reported that sales of the type of rifle used by the killer went up dramatically.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Jewish solution is this:

1. Automatic weapons designed purely for killing people, and bottomless magazines of ammunition, should be simply unavailable.

2. Security should be tightened around public places, and people should be checked for weapons when entering crowded areas, just like they are in Israel.

3. People who, as much as this is possible, might be identified as potential threats, should have easy access to mental health care. 

Consider this, ladies and gentlemen: a commentator I heard on NPR pointed out that it is significantly easier, less expensive, and socially acceptable to acquire an assault rifle, a weapon designed for nothing less than murder, than it is to get treatment for mental illness. 

How can we live in such a society and not be guilty of standing by the blood of our neighbors? How can we watch as more than 30,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds every year (including homicides, suicides, accidents, and so forth), 3,000 of them children and teens? That’s nearly 100 people every single day.

In Israel, private gun ownership is scarce; the Jewish solution there means that fewer than 10 people are murdered with guns every year, none of them children. (Statistics courtesy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and New York Times columnist Charles Blow.)

Returning to the question of Jewish identity, we acknowledge that there are many ways to be Jewish. Some of them involve religious observance, some include Zionism, some are dedicated to cultural traditions. But all Jews have the ability to tap into the principles of our ancestors, so easily conveyed by Mayor Bloomberg. We take care of each other. This is our heritage: we approach life in a way that highlights the sacred spark that God has given every creature, and we zealously protect those Divine sparks.

I conclude by reminding us all of the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4), “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.

Like Joseph, one Jew among many Egyptians, we can change America for the better; like Isaiah, one prophet of peace among many warriors, we can herald a different time.

Shabbat shalom. May this be a Shabbat of peace.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, December 22, 2012.)

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