Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gun Violence in Our Times: When Are We Going to Learn

(This is a sermon that I presented on Friday evening, August 11, 2012, at Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin, on the Friday following the August 5 2012 attack on the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  The occasion was our synagogue's "Senior Shabbat," which, as you will see, was not the subject of  my remarks.)

On this Senior Shabbat, I am reminded of the supreme command regarding Judaism’s approach to the aging.  It is found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and directs us as follows:
“Rise up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, and revere your God.  I am the Eternal.”

This instruction needs no further explanation or commentary.  It is simple, straightforward, and important.  Rabbi Benjamin Bleich, an Orthodox colleague, offers one additional insight on this verse that I found helpful.

He explains that the addendum to the command, that is, where it says, “I am the Eternal,” suggests that God is telling us something crucial.  Since God may be the oldest entity in the universe, God is particularly connected to those who share with God this divine quality of age.

Perhaps the Holy One has a personal stake in how the elderly are treated.

Well, I am certain that’s not God’s motivation.  In truth, we should all be concerned about the elderly, about their concerns, and their welfare.

But, in any case, these words from the Holiness Code are not the focus of my remarks tonight.

First, events of the week gone by here in Wisconsin have superseded my original intention of speaking about health care in our country, for senior adults and for all of us.

That is an important topic, one which I will visit in the next four to six weeks.
Second, it seems to me that talking about “aging” to a congregation at a Senior Shabbat service is unnecessary.  It’s a bit like praising addition and subtraction skills to a calculus class…it’s unnecessary and it’s patronizing.

More to the point:  Judaism accepts the reality that the wisdom, experience, maturity, and creativity of “those with age” in our society can contribute mightily to the welfare of the larger world.  And so I offer to you these thoughts on a different subject this night, as we all try to improve the world in which we live.

As of last Sunday, the words “Oak Creek, Wisconsin, 2012” will now join Camden, New Hersey, 1949; Austin, Texas, 1966; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 1982; San Ysidro, California, 1984; Killeen, Texas, 1991; Springfield, Oregon, 1998; Columbine High School, 1999; Virginia Tech, 2007; Geneva County, Alabama, 2009; Binghamton, New York, 2009; Fort Hood, Texas, 2009; Tucson, Arizona, 2011; and Aurora, Colorado, 2012.

These places and dates may be familiar to you.  I hope they are in some way, for these are, according to CNN, the worst mass shootings in our nation since the end of World War II.
There have been other occasions of massive gun violence in our nation, but these are among the ones with the highest numbers of fatalities.

I do believe, however, that the name Oak Creek is unique on this list.  Why?  Because it is the only instance listed where a religious institution was the target.  And that provides an important connection to us!

There certainly have been many religious groups that have experienced violence: the synagogues and scholarly academies of the land of Israel at the time of the Roman occupation; Kristallnacht; black churches in the southern United States that regularly experienced fire-bombing and gun violence in the last 160 years; the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, the site of the October 1958 bombing; the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Purim 1994.  The list goes on and on.

In fact, let me add perhaps the most recent fire that demolished a minority religious institution in our nation.  Just four days ago, on Monday August 6, the relatively new mosque of the Islamic Society of Joplin, Missouri, was completely consumed by fire.  This act seems to have been the second – and sadly successful – attempt to destroy this building this summer: The first case of arson at this mosque occurred on Independence Day, five weeks ago.  [There’s a sad commentary on the celebration and preservation of religious liberty.]  And this past Monday, the perpetrators finished the job.

But since the events in Milwaukee of this past week involved gun violence, and the perpetrator directed his violence toward a community of faith, it is important that religious communities all over – especially, if you will, congregations of “minority” religions, such as ours – recognize this as an act of racial and religious prejudice, and speak out in solidarity.

We may not soon know – with any accuracy – the motivations of this madman.  But based upon his Internet profile, the attacker seems to have been someone obsessed with supremacy of white people.

That this perpetrator invaded a religious community is bad enough…

The heartrending irony is that the Sikh religion was founded to denounce the oppression of anyone based on class, creed, color, or sex, or other divinely-granted human uniqueness.  And it was in that calm, peaceful, and joyful Sikh Temple, that someone decided to unleash his prejudice and intolerance.

Crimes such as these are clearly intended to demonstrate group hatred; they’re also aimed at ripping apart any chance that relationships might form between minority groups and majority culture.

According to David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, hate crimes “are nothing less than attacks on those values that are the pillars of our republic and the guarantors of our freedom.  They are a betrayal not only of our most essential religious values but of the promise of America.”

I believe that an attack on one religious community amounts to an attack on us all, which is the reason that we act in solidarity at a time of tragedy. 

This past Monday, I reached out to the leadership of the local Sikh Society and offered the condolences and support of our synagogue community.  They were truly gratified to hear from us even as they were attempting to cope with calamity.  And I believe it is part of our Jewish ethos to be present at times of both joy and tragedy.

Another aspect of our Jewish world view is to dedicate our personal and communal efforts toward actions that perfect our society.  The phrase “tikkun olam,” which we translate as the “repair,” or the “perfection of the world,” must not be a phrase that we debate in the sanctuary, and then leave at the Oneg Shabbat table.

That same Holiness Code, whose direction about respect for the aging I cited at the beginning of my remarks, also tells us ‘not to stand idly around while our neighbor bleeds.’

That language is very biblical.   During this week, however, that language is not to be understood as metaphor.

At a time of senseless bloodshed, we are called upon to look seriously at root causes, and to attempt to do something to eliminate the violence that we confront.

Such is the challenge of guns, gun ownership, and gun control in our era.  The shootings in Oak Creek remind us of the easy availability of firearms and ammunition, especially to those who wish to inflict harm.  And so, I wonder how we can stop them before they cause more pain, suffering, and religious and racial intimidation.

But merely raising this question can provoke members of this or that advocacy group, who would otherwise like simply to bring to a halt the discussion, and to have their position win the day.

We know that passions fly at any discussion of the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, and that radio and television talk show hosts enflame countless numbers of listeners about this topic.  And in truth, a member of the clergy takes risks in speaking about gun control from the pulpit.

That is not an easy job, but it must be done.

Recently, a Presbyterian pastor whom I read about was inspired by his national body that had just taken a stand advocating that church-goers should be encouraged to participate in gun buy-back programs sponsored by local police authorities, and to work for gun control legislation.  Well, this pastor thought these were good ideas, and that he’d mention these advocacy positions during his next sermon.

He preached that next Sunday on the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that reads, “Blessed are the meek.” (Hey, even Jews know about that one.)  He asserted that a position of humility suggests that people refrain from the use of firearms.  He also added that people of good faith could differ on that particular issue, and that not everyone would agree with the national body’s stance.

But there it was, and he was, in his mind, supporting this message sent down from on high.

Well… that was the morning when he found out how many members of his congregation belonged to the National Rifle Association.  As soon as he mentioned the topic, he reported, arms began to fold, scowls formed on people’s faces, and he was immediately reminded about a truism on pulpit life, that the sermon is usually just the beginning of the conversation.

He relates that, not too long after that fateful Sunday, he saw an editorial cartoon portraying a minister behind a pulpit riddled with bullet holes.  The caption read, “Reverend Smith decided that this would be his last sermon on gun control.”

Well, intimidation aside, this issue has become a terribly significant, and we, as members of a civil society, cannot afford NOT to engage in this conversation; we must be part of the search for solutions.

Too long have we been told that the Second Amendment contains unambiguous language providing for private citizens to own guns and harbor thousands of rounds of ammunition.  Arguments such as these are absolutist, and are intended simply to shut down any fruitful discussion.

So I would like to take the dialogue in a different direction.  For starters, here are some sobering statistics:

According to a recent article for Time magazine , there are 88.8 firearms for every 100 people in this country, almost one gun per person.  This is the largest per capita rate of gun ownership in the world.

The country of Yemen is in second place, 54.8, and then Switzerland with 45.7, and Finland with 45.3.  No other country has a rate above 40, not even Israel, where the rate of handgun ownership is 7.3 per every 100 people.  In case you’re interested, Israel is ranked at #79, and tied with Belarus, Georgia, and Iran.

Also, in a country such as ours, a proliferation of guns has not lowered gun violence.  Over the last decade, violent-crime rates have fallen by 20%, aggravated assault is lower by 21%, motor-vehicle theft has declined by 44.5% and non-firearm homicides have decreased by 22%.  But the number of firearm homicides is essentially unchanged.  The gun-homicide rate per capita in the United States is 30 times that of Britain and Australia, 10 times that of India and four times that of Switzerland.  What is a country to do?!

I think that we in the Jewish community know what it takes.  What is required are these:

  • Life-affirming values by which to live;
  • the chutzpah to say what needs to be said;
  • the wisdom to move forward a national conversation;
  • and the connections necessary to push legislation through state and national jurisdictions;
  • all toward the goal of reducing and, God willing, eliminating violence through guns.

Let us remind ourselves, that Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity and primary value of human life.  The Ten Commandments decrees us ‘not to murder.’  The Talmud teaches us that ‘one who takes a single life, it is as though that person has destroyed the universe; and that one who saves one life, it is as though that person has saved the universe.’  Isaiah exhorts us to turn weapons of destruction into implements for the greater good of society (Isaiah 2:4).

These and other values throughout our tradition direct us to foster a society built on peace and justice and life.

How do we get there?  Here is the bottom line:

In an increasingly impersonal and alienating society, and with the continuing presence of racial, religious, sexual orientation, and gender prejudices, we have to state unequivocally that the dehumanizing of the human being and the carelessness with which human life is taken, stand in direct violation of Jewish affirmations of life.  We may not sit idly while our neighbor bleeds.

In our Torah portion this week, we will read of the retributive punishment that God promised to the Israelites if they did not follow God’s teachings.  Such a passage was intended to instill in our ancestors a sense of fear of God, and unequivocal fealty to God’s orders.

In our day, we understand differently, and we know that neither reward nor punishment emanate from God.  Rather we take these words as metaphor…but we learn something more affecting and insistent.  Which is this…

If we fail to do what is right, and if we neglect the demand to protect the people with whom we share this planet, then by themselves – prompted by our abandonment and disregard – our society and our planet will continue to lapse into a spirit of selfishness and self-destruction.

 The prophecies of the Torah will come true, but it will be at our hands.
And God will simply sit back and wonder.

So how many more times must we witness a horrendous crime scene site riddled with bullets and bodies?  When will we learn the lessons from those fourteen – and more – tragedies that I enumerated earlier tonight?  How long will it take us to learn?!