Between Despair and Outrage

Below is Rabbi Josh Davidson’s sermon from Saturday December 15, in response to the tragic shooting at Newtown Elementary School.

In the presence of boundless grief the poet wrote, ain ode tefilah bisfatai, “There is no longer a prayer on my lips.”

When we heard reports of yesterday’s massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, no doubt most of us were speechless. There were no words to convey our anguish, only tears. President Obama fought back his own in expressing the country’s grief: “Our hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children,” he said.

As our voices came back inside us, we began to ask the inevitable questions: “Why did this happen? How could this happen?”

These are important questions: Who and what’s to blame for this recent spate of gun violence that culminated in yesterday’s tragedy? The answers will depend on who you listen to, or on what you read.

My own recommendation is Leviticus Chapter 19. It warns: “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him.” “What does this mean?” asked the 19th century gerrer rebbe. It means: “When you rebuke our neighbor, rebuke yourself at the same time. For you, too, have a share in his transgression.” Or as we like to say it: When you point the finger of blame at somebody else know there are always three more fingers pointing back at you.

We, like all Americans, hold a share of the guilt for what happened yesterday because we have failed to keep effective gun control legislation at the top of the national agenda, if it’s ever really been there at all. There just wouldn’t be these massacres if there weren’t such easy access to guns, especially the high capacity rapid-fire type used in yesterday’s shootings. In 33 states, criminals can buy guns at gun shows without background checks. 40% of gun sales nationwide take place without any checks at all. And on a normal day in America, 8 children and 75 adults die from gun violence. That’s one gun death every 17 minutes.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Reform Jew and a member of our sister congregation Temple Emanu-El in New York City, has been a heroic voice for gun control. Yesterday his outrage was apparent in his words: “We heard after Columbine that it was too soon to talk about gun laws. We heard it after Virginia Tech. After Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek. And now we are hearing it again…President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress…We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership – not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.”

You may wonder how the argument for gun control plays out in Jewish law. It would be disingenuous to claim that the Torah addresses it specifically. The Torah knows nothing of guns. And in fact rabbinic rulings drawn from the book of Exodus do allow for citizens to be adequately armed in their own defense. So apply those opinions to today’s realities and private gun ownership is permissible under the halachah.

But that’s not the end of the story. Civil legislation in Deuteronomy prioritizes public safety, with the Talmud and subsequent legal codes demanding that any threats to public safety be removed, and even that circumstances causing the public to fear for its safety be similarly eliminated. And the Talmud prohibits the distribution of weapons to those who would resell them to criminals. So extend these very specific halachot to contemporary circumstances and one derives our tradition’s clear call for stricter gun control legislation.

It is a call we have failed to answer, and now we must acknowledge our complicity in yesterday’s tragedy.

From this week’s parshah, the gerrer rebbe recognized that there are two kinds of confessions of guilt. At various points in their confrontation with Joseph on the Egyptian throne, his brothers offer both. In this morning’s parshah they confessed simply because they did not want to be punished. But in the verses we read this afternoon they confessed because they finally understood the magnitute of their sin. And that, the rebbe says, is why Joseph forgave them, and allowed them to see their act of selling him into slavery as part of a larger plan that would in the end save the Israelite people from famine.

Perhaps, if we really get it this time – that meaningful gun control cannot wait – then we too will be forgiven our moral failure, and this tragedy will become the beginning of a new resolve in this country, and a brighter, safer future for our children.


Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the rabbi at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester and is a member of the Commission on Social Action.

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