Newtown and a Jewish Reflection on Gun Control

Newtown and a Jewish Reflection on Gun Control December 18, 2012

It was only a few weeks after my family and I moved to Denver to assume the position of senior rabbi at a synagogue just a few miles from Aurora that the horrific massacre at the movie theater occurred. Our television screens and laptops were inundated with the life stories of the victims and the images of so much grief and destruction. I wrote an article back then for The Denver Post calling on all people of faith and good conscience to affirm the sacredness of all life as a response to the attempt to utterly devalue life. Later, my synagogue organized a wide community rally for the holiness of life in which political representatives and representatives of a great diversity of community organizations spoke.

However, there was one conversation absent from any of the public moments to memorialize the victims of Aurora: a frank and open dialogue about our society’s glorification of guns and violence. A Second Amendment meant to preserve militias to protect our shores from foreign invaders has facilitated a pervasive culture of guns and gun ownership. After Aurora we were told not to bring up this systemic issue so as not to politicize the tragedy that transpired. I too refrained from any mention of gun control either during the large community rally we organized or from the pulpit.

Yet, another massacre has occurred. We mourn the loss of another 27 lives, 20 of them between the ages of 5 and 7. Is now also not the time to discuss one of the most pertinent issues we face as a country? How many more mass shootings have to happen with legally purchased guns before it is permissible to address our nation’s perverse obsession with guns? I for one will no longer be silent. I for one cannot bear the guilt and complicity of silence. It is bearing on my soul and tearing at my heart. For the sake of those murdered this year and for all those who we still could save from future mass killings, we must raise our voices and declare: enough is enough!

I believe that as citizens of the most vibrant democracy on earth, we must vote with our conscience and apply our values to the decisions we make at the polls. It is a false notion that we are able to divorce our values from who we are because our values is who we are. Thus, when it comes to the issue of gun control, I consider it from the lens of Jewish wisdom. As a rabbi my task is to apply my tradition to the dilemmas of the day and seek counsel from the sages of the past four millennia. Even a simple cursory look at Jewish tradition reveals a value judgment about weapons:

“A man must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, lance or spear [on Shabbat]; and if he does go out he incurs a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer said they are decorative for him! But, the Sages maintain, they are disgusting.” – Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 63a

Shabbat, the day of rest, is the weekly articulation of our deepest held theological and philosophical convictions. It is a powerful expression of what we hold to be the ideal. What we do or do not do on Shabbat puts forth our values into the world. The Sages do not attempt to mince words in their view of the prohibition to carry weapons on this day. Are weapons required at times? Absolutely. Unfortunately, we do not live in a world yet made perfect and war is still a part of our reality. Soldiers need weapons. Police officers need weapons. Rabbi Eliezer argues that weapons play a positive role. They are attractive and appealing. Normal folk ought to be able to carry their weapons in Rabbi Eliezer’s view. Yet, the Sages, the majority opinion, decisively and unapologetically counter his minority opinion: Weapons are not attractive. Weapons are not decoration. Weapons are quite simply disgusting.

Disgust is a visceral word. It is a word deeply rooted in the emotive experience. Disgust is something we feel as a result of a worldview that cultivates an intense dislike for instruments of violence. The person who feels disgust when they look at a weapon does not glorify guns or media that portrays bloodshed, rampages and murder. That person is an ohev beriot, a lover of all creation and a rodef shalom, a vigorous pursuer of peace.

A substantial argument for the preservation of sweeping and profoundly permissive gun ownership laws in this country is the right of people to pursue their hobby of hunting. There is a long history of people taking their shotguns, rifles or other weapons into forests and other open areas and seeking wildlife in the aim of killing it. Some of these people take home the animals they have killed and eat them while others do not. This is a part of the American experience we are told that we must preserve and uphold. It is a rich part of our history. I do not share that sentiment whatsoever. There has been many aspects to the American experience that we have let go of and moved past. We no longer practice slavery. We no longer enforce separate water fountains. We no longer refuse women the vote. Once again Jewish tradition offers a view of hunting that is deeply instructive.

The Bible itself casts the person who consumes their life with hunting as a person not fit for covenant and for sacred mission. Esau, perhaps the first great hunter of the human story, is denied the right of familial transmission and covenantal destiny. Much later, the 18th century rabbi of Prague, Ezekiel Landau, forbids hunting as a hobby because it is not befitting a person carrying on the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps it is time to make the audacious argument that we require some individuals to forgo the pleasure of killing deer in the name of protecting our children.

I understand that many people will not agree with my conclusions. There are those who believe deeply in their right to own instruments of violence, whether because it gives them a sense of security or because they love hunting or maybe simply because they enjoy the feel of the gun in their hands. The voice of those who oppose gun control needs to be heard as well in the shaping of public policy and legislation because passionate and real debate is the hallmark of our democracy. What we can no longer tolerate though is the imposed silence on this issue. For the sake of the innocents lost we must no longer be silent.

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