The organization called “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence” has called the weekend of March 13-16 “Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath.”
Faiths United is supported by a wide spectrum of American religious bodies, including the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism, as well as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. That broad base of support led me to consider signing on to the Gun Prevention Sabbath, and thinking about how a community in northern New Jersey might, could, and should respond to this call for public action.
Houses of worship of many faiths will come together on that weekend to discuss and pray about gun violence prevention. That common effort itself is enough reason to raise our voice, to become a part of a great call and a communion across faith boundaries. That is an extraordinary opportunity.
But the issues around gun control raise important questions of substance that must be considered. The United States is unique in its long-standing constitutional protection of the right to carry arms. This basic foundational principle of liberty is challenged today by the very real threat that increased availability of firearms brings to our society. It is an acute threat, something we understand personally.
My brother is a high school English teacher in Denver, Colorado. Some of his students went out to the movies one night and found themselves subjected to rapid gunfire in a dark auditorium.
The Ridgewood clergy association, a wonderful group of caring faith leaders that I have the privilege of chairing, drove to Newtown, Connecticut, last year to have lunch with their clergy association and listen to their stories of the aftermath of tragedy, and how they continue to help their community slowly put the pieces back together.
All of us shop at the Garden State Plaza, where last November our local police spent an evening hunting down a shooter.
I know that as with other life-and-death issues, it is easy to say that this one does not affect us – until it does. We know how we do not want to discuss a disease that we don’t have, how we prefer to ignore anti-Semitic incidents, and how we turn our backs to those in need. Gun prevention is an opportunity to engage with an issue that is current and can save lives.
I am neither unconcerned nor unpatriotically uncaring about our nation’s constitutional heritage. The tension here between the right to bear arms and to live in a secure society is analogous to so many other cases where a current concern conflicts with a matter of constitutional mandate. How many times has the rabbinate been confronted with cases where an ethical imperative seems to conflict with a principle of the Torah? In this case, as in others, the sacred process is engaged through careful consideration of the conflicting values and the need to find a way to preserve the underlying intent of the constitutional mandate while responding to the new concern.
With gun control, acknowledging data such as the fact that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense gives us the perspective to understand that we have the responsibility to adjudicate the divergence between norm and intent, because our society is ours to govern. When the Talmud teaches that someone who takes one life destroys a world and someone who saves one life saves a world, the meaning is that the world is given to us. It is for us to destroy it or to save it. To promote gun “control” is not to banish all weapons of self-defense and ignore a constitutional principle. Laws, and the meaning of the Constitution itself, evolve to reflect changes in the society that those laws and constitutions exist to protect, just as our understanding of the Torah can evolve from generation to generation.
My analogy to Torah questions might seem forced, because someone might say that my duty to care for the legal heritage of the society should not compare to my duty as a rabbi to defend the word of the Torah. But the analogy is intended and is apt. Unlike in the case of Torah questions, where the rabbi’s and synagogue’s voices are primary, here in a political question it is easy to say that the rabbi and synagogue have no role. Politics have no place on the bimah, we often hear.
But I disagree. When I say something that upsets no one, then I know that I have said nothing. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. My role is to teach my Torah, my sense of what is right. That is all I can do. Whenever I hear that the synagogue has no place to weigh in on a “political” issue, I know that it is a matter of great public concern, and we have a responsibility to raise our voices. There is a difference between supporting specific political efforts, parties, and candidates, which generally is illegal for charitable organizations, and supporting issues and matters of public concern, which generally is expected of charities genuinely engaged in the betterment of society. It is because of that promise of engagement with the public process of betterment that charities are exempt from taxation, and not its opposite. Certainly, rabbis and pastors are at times hesitant to speak on issues that are politically divisive, but the alternative is irrelevancy, an alternative that any cursory reading of the recent Pew report on American Judaism easily will illuminate.
And so, my synagogue and I are engaging the issue of gun prevention, and on the Shabbat morning of March 15 we will be learning about the problem, finding out what we can work towards to better our society, joining with other houses of worship across the country and across denominational and faith lines, and praying that we be blessed with peace under God’s protective wing.