Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Jewish Call for Gun Control

Amardeep Kaleka was scared as a child. His father had come to America thirty years ago for freedom, to leave behind the discrimination that he faced for his own beliefs, and yet soon after settling in this country, that discrimination turned to violence. Working at a gas station, Amardeep’s father was beaten and attacked. Amardeep wanted to leave America. Maybe this wasn’t the land of the free that his father thought it was. He father reassured his fears: “They will accept us. You’ll see. They will accept us,” he said. Thirty years later, Amardeep, now a grown man, received a phone call, informing him that his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, founder and president of the Sikh Tempe of Oak Creek, Wisconsin had been shot and killed in a brutal and cowardly act of domestic terror. Mr. Kaleka was one of six worshippers killed Sunday morning when a crazed man entered the house of worship with a gun and began shooting.

This is an all too familiar story. The focus of news coverage since this attack has been on religious discrimination and hate because the shooter had ties to a white supremacist group and was a part of a so-called “hate rock band.” This shocking tragedy comes only a mere weeks after a gunman walked into an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and opened fire. The coveraged that followed that tragedy focused on violence in Hollywood and whether or not violent movie themes encourage fans to act them out in reality, like the real-life Joker going on a shooting rampage in the “Dark Knight Rises” Batman premeire. If we look back on the struggles that we have dealt with as a society over the past couple of months, there is a common theme:

At the end of February, Florida and the entire country was up in arms over George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchmen, shooting and killing a black teenager only armed with iced tea and skittles, claiming self-defense, protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law which allows one to shoot and kill if he feels his life is endangered. Our own Jacksonville community was rocked when at the beginning of May, Dale Regan, head of school of Episcopal School of Jacksonville and First Coast community leader was shot dead in cold blood by a disgruntled and mentally unstable fired faculty member. Now, within weeks of each other over the summer, we have mourned these two terrible gun-related mass murders, one in a popular gathering place – the movie theater, and the other in a house of worship. None of these tragedies are related and yet they are all connected for they are all the result of gun violence.

Gun Control is a very heated political debate, so much so that while New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pushed Obama and Romney to make statements while on the campaign trail, both have refrained from saying much of anything with a fear that it will be taken the wrong way by the right or the left. This is also a strongly divisive issue among Americans. A CNN poll released Thursday found that the public remains divided on the issue, with 50% saying they favor no restrictions or only minor restrictions on owning guns and 48% supporting major restrictions or a complete ban on gun ownership by individuals except police and other authorized personnel.

The National Rifle Association is the most influential lobbying group in Washington. In 1980, days before the election, the NRA endorsed Ronald Reagan, the first time in history they had endorsed a president candidate. Ironically, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the largest national organization with such a mission, is named for Jim Brady, former assistant to President Reagan who was shot and nearly killed, and permanently disabled as a result of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Many say “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” They are of course correct. Getting rid of guns will not end murder. All we need to do is look at the first case of murder in the Torah: when Cain kill Abel. People do kill people, except that people with guns kill a lot more people than people without guns.

This is not to suggest that violence and weaponry are not a part of our tradition. One has to look no further than the end of Parashat Eikev to see such violence. We tend to forget that this promised land that God promised to us was not empty and barren and ready for the taking. It was a land already inhabited by many nations. The nations were not going to just pack their bags and move elsewhere. God prepares us for the inevitable war, that we must drive out these nations. We find in Devarim 11:23:

Then the Lord will drive out all these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves.

God prepares the Jewish people for what will be coming: the books that follow in the Tanakh focus on the various battles that the Israelites are involved in in an effort to conquer the land. Even the Torah acknowledges the inevitablitiy of war, the need at times to bear arms and use weapons. Similarly, the second amendment of the Bll of Rights, upholds our right to bear arms as US citizens. I assure you: my goal is not to ban all weapons and I’m not a constitutional scholar so I won’t pretend to try to understand the reasoning behind the second amendment. Nor would it be appropriate to share such thoughts or political discourse in a religious setting. However, I want to acknowledge that despite the reality of war in the Torah and this week’s Torah portion, Jewish tradition, the words of our Torah, and the rabbis who have spent thousands of years interpreting such words, never intended such violent, but necessary acts in order to settle in the Promised Land to be construed as one’s right to carry such a deadly weapon or to carry out such deadly acts outside of war.

In fact, the rabbis invoke Pekuach Nefesh, the commandment to save a life as the most important of all mitzvot, superceding any other mitzvah. One is able to — and obligated to — do what is necessary in order to save a life. The use of a gun seems to have the opposite effect. While some may argue that certain guns are used for recreational use and hunting, which is a separate, yet just as disturbing issue, handguns and assault weapons serve one purpose: to kill, violating arguably the most important commandment of the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Commandments: Lo Tirtzach, Thou shall not kill.

I’m not arguing the reason why one owns a gun. Having it for self-defense, to protect one’s family, or to prevent crazed madmen from repeating such disastorous acts like those witnessed in Aurora, Colorado or Oak Creek, Wisconsin seems reasonable. After all, according to Time Magazine, gun sales have spiked since the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, and have increased again this week as a response to the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. The majority of those who purchased a fire arm are first time gun owners, the gun barrel serving as an adult security blanket, helping individuals feel safe, vowing that the gun is meant for self-defense. But that doesn’t change the fact that a gun is meant to kill someone. I’ve been to a shooting range and taken target practice. The target is not a bullseye, a deer or moose. The target is in the shape of a human, the focal point being the heart and the head. A gun is meant to kill. How can we justify such an act, an act that is forbidden in our tradition, the opposite of our greatest obligation, to save a life? We are taught in the Mishnah (Mesekhet Sanhedrin 4:5): Whomever destroys a soul, destroys the entire world. How can we allow time after time, in our own backyard, in our own country that is supposed to be based on the Judeo-Christian morals and ethics for convicted felons and mentally ill individuals to legally own guns? Aren’t we simply encouraging them to destroy a soul? To destroy the world?

Even the rabbis acknowledge that our goal is not to retaliate violence with similar violence. In chapter 21 of the book of Shemot, the book of Exodus, we are introduced to the biblical notion of Ayin Tachat Ayin, an Eye for an Eye:

But if any harm shall follow, then you shall give life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

The Torah suggests that retribution and revenge is permitted, but even the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t justify this, suggesting that eye for an eye, life for a life, isn’t talking about capital punishment, but instead focusing on financial retribution for loss and damages caused. The Talmud can’t justify a human being killing another. While we are made in God’s image, we are not God; it is not up to us to determine who shall live and who shall die. That is left in God’s hands. Therefore, how can we put a gun in the hands of someone who at any moment could open fire on an innocent and unarmed group.

This is not just a concern of mass shootings. Unfortunately, it is only those mass shootings and tragedies that bring this conversation on gun control to the surface. The reality is that there are over an average of eighty gun related deaths a day in America, many coming in poor communities, and ten percent of those killed by guns each day being children. I believe that the first step to prevent such mass shootings and acts of domestic terrorism from happening again, as well as the first step to significant decreases in the number of lives lost as a result of gun violence is to have stricter gun control laws. Parashat Eikev ends with violence in terms of inhabiting the Promised Land, so we only need to look to the Promised Land, to Israel, for guidance.

The State of Israel is a place where terrorist attacks are a daily fear, a place where every citizen serves in the Israel Defense Forces for a couple of years, where we are used to seeing teenagers out to dinner with an M-16 dangling on their shoulders like a knapsack. One would think that immersed in such a society, most civilians bear arms. Israel, though, doesn’t have a second amendment like America. In fact, Israel doesn’t have a constitution at all! What they do have are very strict gun control laws. Israel’s department of public security considers gun ownership a privilege not a right. Gun owners in Israel are limited to owning one pistol and must undergo extensive mental and physical tests before they can receive a weapon. They are limited to fifty rounds of ammunition per year. Furthermore, one can only own a pistol if he or she spent two years serving as a captain in the army or a former lieutenant colonel. Israel is a place in which many more fear for their lives on a daily basis. Israel is a place in which we expect individuals to own guns for protection and self-defense. Israel is a place in which restaurants have security guards asking if you are carrying a weapon before you sit down to eat dinner. Yet, the percentage of gun related deaths in Israel is significantly less than they are here. The reason: stricter gun control laws.

We can also look to countries like Japan or the United Kingdom where only police and authorized personnel can own guns and it is nearly impossible for one to acquire a gun illegally. I still acknowledge, that it is possible and if one is adamant about owning a gun, one will find a way to own a gun. I am not suggesting that we outlaw guns. I believe in the law of the land and the second amendment.

However, I believe that we must make it much more difficult to own a gun. Background checks must be stricter and more intense. There should be a limit to the amount of firearms one can own. There should be a ban on assault weapons, firearms with the sole intention of murdering many. Our own good intentions of self-defense and protection, and thus owning a gun as a result, also gives way to too many individuals — convicted felons, those who are mentally unstable, those who are plotting acts of domestic terror on targeted religious groups or own groups of innocent civilians, as well as those who are angry and have a score to settle – from acquiring weapons meant to destroy.

The Talmud teaches in Mesekhet Shabbat 63a that an individual is not to go out into the public domain on Shabbat with a sword, or a bow, or a shield, or a round-studded metal club, or with a spear. The Sages argue that this is because wearing these weapons are not clothing ornaments. Rather, they are a disgrace, and a sign of violence, a sign that one who carries such a weapon will commit violent acts. They conclude by quoting the prophet Isaiah, praying that his prophetic message becomes reality, speedily in our day: They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears, nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore. A prayer, a prophetic message, to end violence. We begin making this a reality by making it harder for those who want to commit violent acts to acquire weapons.

While the CNN poll that I mentioned concerning gun control is divided down the middle, there are two issues that are met with almost unanimous support: The poll indicates that 96% are in favor of background checks and 91% support laws to prevent convicted felons or people with mental health problems from owning guns. Our goal is to save lives – Pekuach Nefesh. Destroying a soul destroys the world, but saving a life also saves the world. Let us save more lives by encouraging stricter gun control laws. Let us celebrate life instead of mourn death and let us change our ways so that there will be many more lives to celebrate.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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