This week’s portion of Yitro includes the Ten Commandments, including that oft misinterpreted, “Thou shalt not kill.” The Hebrew word found there is not “kill,” but “murder.” Judaism does allow some killing, including the killing of animals for food – albeit in a strictly regulated, humane fashion – and the killing of human beings in self defense, including morally justifiable wars.
But murder is a different matter entirely. The prohibition includes traditional concepts of cold-blooded criminal behavior, but the commentator Ibn Ezra explains that the definition of murder goes beyond that. He writes:
One may murder by the hand and by the tongue, by tale bearing and character assassination. One may murder also by carelessness, by indifference, by the failure to save human life when it is in your power to do so.
By this interpretation, 30,000 Americans are murdered by guns every year. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of walking wounded in the United States, people like Gabby Giffords (who brought us all to tears with her appearance this week) whose lives have been unalterably changed by those hand-held weapons of mass destruction that we call guns. The Torah has commanded us not to be indifferent in this matter. And now, in the aftermath of a string of unbearable tragedies, culminating in Newtown, the call for common sense gun reform has become the moral cry of this generation.
That’s why, when extended a special invitation, I went to Washington this week, to join 80 clergy organized by Lifelines to Healing. We received a White House briefing from the Vice President’s senior staffers working on this issue and then we presented our joint clergy statement, Healing the Soul of America from Gun Violence, both to the Administration and then to a press conference on Capitol Hill. As we ascended the Hill, it became clearer than ever before why I was there. Like Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King in Selma so many years before, I felt like we were “praying with our feet.”
This is nothing less than the Civil Rights movement of our time. This is a true “Right to Life” initiative, in fact, one that cuts across all lines of race, socioeconomic background and creed.
As our statement says:
We affirm that every life is precious in the eyes of our creator and our God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. We are committed to uniting around the common pain and loss of those who have suffered in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine and Oak Creek and Oakland. We are committed through our work to heal the soul of a nation. We will be vigilant partners in the struggle to transform our communities from the valley of the shadow of death to the land of the living.
Ridding our schools, streets and homes of gun violence is a moral issue of the highest order. People think that current attitudes will never change, but they are changing as we speak, just as they changed over the past generation regarding smoking, seat belts and littering. Gun owners and NRA members understand the need for common sense reform, especially regarding background checks. Nearly 90 percent of Americans support this. No doubt, guns have become an enormous part of American culture, so much so that even at a conference devoted to reducing their impact, we kept on finding ourselves using expressions like “armed with arguments,” “shoot from the hip,” and “fire away.” I’m purposely refraining from using “bullet points” in this article.
Gun violence is about teen gangs and angry husbands, it’s about homicide and suicide, it’s about household accidents with make-believe cowboys and it’s about mentally unstable (and undiagnosed or unreported) young adults armed to the teeth. Until Aurora and Newtown, most in suburbia paid little heed to the massacres occurring every day in America’s inner cities. As one red state evangelical minister stated plainly at my conference, “Shame on us.”
Now we are feeling their pain too – for just as God feels the pain of all children equally, so should we weep not only for those innocent victims in Newtown, but for 15 year old Hadiya Pendelton, who was shot a mile from the President’s Chicago residence this week, after seeing him sworn in last week as a majorette in her school band. And we weep with Shirley Chambers the Chicago mother who lost all four of her children to gun violence. All human life is of equal value. Let those four Chambers children now become the fourth child at our Seders this year, along with the Newtown 20 and all the children, everywhere, who have fallen victim to our society’s gun-sanity: they are the “child who cannot ask,” because we allowed them to be killed on our watch.
Yes, Ibn Ezra was right. “Thou Shalt Not Murder” means all of us, all who have allowed human beings to be murdered when we could have done something to stop it. We are guilty of betraying the Sixth Commandment because of our misguided understanding of the Second Amendment. In fact, the Second Amendment is not in any danger of being violated if we take semi-automatic assault weapons, the ones designed for military use, out of the hands of civilians. No one is violating any sacrosanct freedoms if we ban high capacity magazines, like the one used in Aurora. No, in fact, we are defending a sacred freedom: the freedom to stay alive. And let’s face it. The NRA is funded 80 percent by gun manufacturers. For their leadership, this isn’t about defending freedoms. This is about defending profits.
In Detroit last week, a third grader came to school with a gun. A third grader! When the police asked why, he said, ”I need it for protection.”
Guns or People?
The old argument that guns don’t kill people, people do, no longer holds up (if it ever did). Wayne LaPierre’s claim that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun is fatally flawed. Our sources tell us that the world is not full of bad and good people. We are all good and we are all bad. Moses himself was bad at times – he killed an Egyptian officer, after all, when his own life was not in danger. What drove him was anger, and anger got the better of him much later on, as well, when he disobeyed God’s command by hitting the rock rather than speaking to it (Numbers 20:12).
It was for that incident that Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. Some might think it a harsh punishment, but the Torah is giving us a clear message here that excessive violence can never be tolerated. Moses was angry at the people, calling them rebels, and his anger got the best of him. So he resorted to blows rather than words. If even Moses, our greatest leader, was susceptible to irrational violence, then it’s not about crazy people doing crazy things; it’s about perfectly normal and good people who fly off the handle and do crazy things. The difference is, now we have semi-automatic rifles, the kind built by Russians to kill Nazis, and these rifles are designed to spray bullets without aiming, to hit soldiers randomly. Those are the bullets that hit Shirley Chambers’ 15 year old daughter randomly, and so many more.
Back in Moses’ time, people got just as angry as they do now, but it was much harder to kill. And people did not take such pride in their weaponry. It’s hard to imagine that Moses (the original Moses, not the guy who played him) would have said that his trusty rod would have to be pried from “my cold, dead hands.” Given his history, if he had wanted to trade his rod in for a rifle, Moses might have had to wait a bit before passing a background check.
I would venture to guess that while people in our time get no angrier, they get a lot more depressed. Mental illness effects one in four. Suicide rates are rising, especially among young people and the military, and suicide is much more likely to be “successful” when you stick a gun in your mouth than when you overdose on pills. When you use a gun, there usually is no second chance. That’s why Moses did not get a second chance. The Torah understood how serious violence can become when it spirals out of control. The spinning bullet is the embodiment of that spiral. And like a diamond, a bullet is forever. Anger and depression impact us all. That does not make us bad people. Pills and rods don’t necessarily kill. Sticks and stones merely break bones. But a gun in the hand of an angry man or depressed woman – it’s the gun that kills, Mr. LaPierre.
It’s the gun that kills.
Rebuilding an Alliance and Saving Jews
Assault rifles and large magazines must be banned. Even if it looks like Congress won’t muster the votes, remember that Martin Luther King came to Washington and told President Johnson it was time for a voting rights act. Johnson said he had already spent his political capital and that it would take ten years. The Civil Rights Act was a reality within ten months.
I am proud that I was joined by 8 other rabbis among the 80 at the conference. Given that a major focus of these conversations was the plight of the inner city, this gave us a chance to begin to rebuild that alliance between African Americans and Jews that was so strong in the ‘60s. This possibility was not lost on us. We were touched by their pain and they appreciated our mere presence. And we also understood that this is an issue that is paramount for all of us. It just took Newtown to wake us up to that fact.
Before Newtown there was Northridge – the JCC shooting in 1999. As a Jew, I care about all innocent human beings, but I also know that my own people are especially threatened by a gun running culture that allows, through gun show loopholes, for white supremacists like Buford Furrow Jr. to procure unconscionably lethal weapons without a problem and blast 70 gunshots into the complex with the intent of killing lots of Jewish kids.
Ending this plague is a moral imperative AND a Jewish imperative. It is universal and particularistic. It is the cry of our generation.
That’s why I won’t let my Congressional representatives off the hook. The President’s Plan to Protect Our Children and Our Communities by Preventing Gun Violence is robust enough to address all major aspects of this crisis, including school security and mental illness. But it must be passed in full.
Life has become cheap indeed in America, a country where someone was likely killed by gun in the time it took for me to write this essay. 30,000 per year is 30,000 too many.
For our children’s sake, this gun-sanity must stop.