Responding to Newtown

At the beginning of this Shabbat’s haftarah portion, the prophet Ezekiel takes two sticks, one representing the tribes of Judah and the other the Northern Tribes, and holds them together as if they were one.

Holding the sticks aloft, signaling a future strong and united Israel, the prophet offers hope to the Israelites exiled in Babylonia, a people shattered by destruction and defeat. 
A week after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting so many of us, broken by this unfathomable tragedy, are in need of Ezekiel’s promise of healing and wholeness.

The devastating truth is that the families of the twenty children and seven adults murdered in last week’s shooting will never be whole again.  In some ways, neither will their classmates at Sandy Hook or the residents of Newtown.  Their idyllic New England community will never again be truly whole.

Perhaps paradoxically, on a national level tragedy has the tendency of bringing together our normally fractured and divided country.   

This is evident in the interfaith prayer vigils and services taking place across the country.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.  But as our nation mourns collectively, the differences that so often divide us– whether race, creed, or socioeconomics are being placed aside – exchanged for the comfort of being part of a greater community.

In Washington, the paralyzing vitriol of partisan politics was also muted – at least temporarily.  As both President Obama and Speaker Boehner acknowledged earlier this week, the tenor of the fiscal cliff negotiations has changed in wake of Sandy Hook shooting.

As it did for the ancient Israelites, the shattering effect of tragedy has brought us together.  But the question remains, will our shared grief and outrage lead to meaningful change. 

During a conference call earlier this week a rabbinic colleague painfully observed that the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is both unprecedented and horrifyingly familiar.  Will this tragedy finally be the one that motivates us enough to try to prevent the next tragedy?  And if so, how can we accomplish that goal?
The politically easy part of the answer is to improve our mental health services.

It has been widely reported that the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting had Asperger’s Syndrome or was autistic.  Such a diagnosis is speculative and frankly irrelevant.  There is no indication that people with autism are more violent than others.  Anecdotally, many of us would describe those people we known with autism to be amongst the gentlest people in our lives. 

But it is likely that Adam Lanza suffered from another form of mental illness.  As a society we find it impossible to fathom that someone of a sound mind could commit acts like those perpetrated in Connecticut last Friday.  This sentiment is supported by statistics that show more than half of all individuals involved in a mass shooting demonstrated signs of mental illness.

Though identifying individuals likely to commit a mass shooting is nearly impossible, accessible and thorough psychiatric treatment for all in need may help prevent the next Adam Lanza or Jeffrey Loughner.  Additionally, there are no doubt millions of people – almost all of them no danger to anyone but themselves – who would benefit.

The politically more sensitive, but probably most effective way to respond to the massacres like the one in Newtown is gun control.

Though we pray for the time when the prophet Isaiah’s vision of swords being beaten into plowshares will be fulfilled, Judaism is not a pacifist tradition.

In the Talmud, Masechet Sanhedrein we read, “if someone comes to kill you, get up early in the morning to kill him first.” This teaching is in many ways an affirmation of our belief that God endowed individuals with both the inclination to do good, yetzer ha-tov, as well as an inclination toward chaos or evil, yetzer ha-ra.  As history and recent events testify, the world can be dangerous and there are times when self-defense is necessary.

While I don’t own a gun I can follow the logic of those who do – provided that they educate themselves and store their weapons in a safe and responsible way.

In the Ancient Near East – and still today in parts of the Middle East, it is customary to sleep on one’s roof during the summer.  Doing so helps people without air conditioning stay cool and sleep comfortably.  But sleeping on a roof is, of course not without danger.  If one were to roll off they could be seriously injured of killed.

Interestingly, Judaism responds to this danger not by outlawing the practice, but instead, as we find in Deuteronomy 22:8, instructing those who build a house to include a parapet or fence along their roof line as a way to prevent such accidents. 

A similar approach should be taken to gun ownership.  Used for sport or self-defense, owning a rifle or handgun can bring benefit.  But it is also necessary to acknowledge that firearms are dangerous, and so just as we are commanded to  build a parapet along the roof, safety precautions must be taken to mitigate risk.

The responsibility for such precautions falls mainly to individual gun owners.  That is why it is important for states to establish education and training requirements for gun ownership.  Unfortunately, here in Florida, home to some of the most liberal gun laws in the country, no license, permit, or training is required before purchasing a weapon.

But it is also necessary that we, as a country, make the necessary distinction between guns and types of ammunition that are for sport and self-defense and those whose primary purpose is destruction.

The great sage Maimonides includes such a distinction in his Hilchot Rotzach vShmirat HaNefesh – the Laws of Murder and Protecting Life.  Maimonides explains that while a sword – a weapon of defense can be sold openly, the sell of offensive weapons — Maimonides’ list includes knives, bears, and lions — should be restricted.

I wouldn’t presume to compile today’s list of weapons whose sale should be restricted or banned.  That is the work of experts and politicians, though those two groups should never be confused.  But my understanding of Jewish tradition tells me that such a list is necessary.

Americans, and especially those of us who consider ourselves southerners or westerners, place grate value on the 2nd Amendment and there is no question that this a gun loving country.  With 90 guns for every 100 citizens our rate of gun ownership is nearly ten times that of the rest of the world. 

The 2nd Amendment, the right to bear arms is a well-established part of American society and American law.  But just as the right to free speech is not without limits – there can and should be sensible restrictions on certain types of weapons and ammunition.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have joined with other religious institutions from across the American faith spectrum in calling on congress to pass sensible gun control legislation.

The closing sentence of the JCPA sample letter reads
We stand united and call on our leaders to support comprehensive action, including meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games.

I encourage you to add your name to the JCPA letter or the one offered by the Religious Action Center.  If you don’t share the viewpoint of the JCPA or the RAC, then please write your own letter to your representatives in Washington and Tallahassee sharing what action you would like to see taken.

Solving the problem of gun violence – whether the scourge of mass killings in places like Newtown and Aurora, or the seemingly endless and less publicized cycles of violence that plague our cities will not be easy.  But the difficulty of the task before us – both in terms of policy and politics –has left us paralyzed for too long. 

In Leviticus we find the command, Lo Taamod Al Dam Ra’echa.  Do Not stand by as your neighbor bleeds.  The blood of our neighbors, of our fellow citizens is being shed.  We cannot stand still any longer.

I close tonight with a prayer written by a Conservative Colleague, Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Our hearts are breaking, God,

As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.

The loss is overwhelming.

Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,

To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.

Shield them from despair.

Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened

Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.

Ease their pain, God,

Let their fears give way to hope.

Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,

Work through us.

Turn our helplessness into action.

Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy

With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.

Shield us from indifference

And from our tendency to forget.

Open our hearts, open our hands.

Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.

Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed

With all our hearts and souls.

Teach us perseverance and dedication.

Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair

So that all children can go to school in peace, God,

Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,

God of the living, God of the dead,

Gather the souls of the victims

Into Your eternal shelter.

Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Their lives have ended

But their lights can never be extinguished.

May they shine on us always

And illuminate our way.