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Fathers, rabbis & guns: Our religious responsibility

Religious leaders have a moral imperative to protest gun violence and demand reform

Four years ago, we stood on the streets of Newtown, CT watching what seemed like an endless flow of funeral processions. As one limousine faded away, we could already hear whispers of the next one coming. It was December 19th, only five days after the horrific shooting that left twenty-six dead, including twenty children. As idealistic rabbinical students, we went that day to show our support and lend a listening ear to those suffering. Before we left we stood across the street from Sandy Hook Elementary School and prayed that no more innocent blood be spilled, hoping that this would be the last mass shooting we mourned.

Orlando. San Bernardino. Fort Hood. Aura. Charleston. Yes, our elected officials in Congress have failed to pass any meaningful legislation towards limiting these types of gun massacres. However, without actively protesting such cowardly behavior, we too our complicit. The Sages of the Talmud teach that anyone who has the capability to effectively protest reprehensible conduct and fails to do so is apprehended for their indifference and apathy. Shame on us. The NRA may claim that “political correctness” is to blame for these terrorist attacks on American soil but we know better. It is the sinful lobbying of the National Rifle Association which allows non-service citizens to own military style weapons in the first place. Shame on them.

In a world of partisan politics and religious intolerance, the time has come where all religious leaders must join to actively protest gun violence and demand reform, not just as a civic responsibility but as a religious and moral one. One of Judaism’s most sacred values is pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Whether one rescues a person drowning at sea or nourishes a starving soul, the obligation of protecting life is our most treasured religious duty. Before tending to our congregants spiritual needs, our most primal responsibility must be to protect their physical well being. Do we not share the dream of the prophet Isaiah where swords transform into plows and spears into pruning knives? Is gun reform not the modern translation and application of Isaiah’s ancient call to action?

Today, as Orthodox rabbis, and as young religious leaders we see our work as nurturing and protecting the sanctity of human life. This includes the lives of our LGBTQ family members. Our religious institutions have often turned a blind eye to so many marginalized groups and it is time that every faith leader acknowledge and welcome every person, no matter gender or sexual orientation. One rabbi, a mentor of ours, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, displayed that moral courage and spiritual audacity when after the holiday of Shavuot, he and his rabbinic team went to a gay club in DC to show solidarity and love.

The Bible declares, “There is a season for everything…a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” Rabbis, imams and priests, let us leave the comfort of our pulpits and enter the streets. Let our communities look in the mirror and ask ourselves: What are we doing to help create a safer world? Often we feel stifled by our inability to effect lasting change. But to become imprisoned by a sense of helplessness undermines the gravity of the issue at hand. Here is our humble call to action:

  • What if our community centers and houses of worship partnered with local police departments and invited community members to dispose of their weapons?
  • What if we ensured this election season that all our representatives and elected officials demand that assault rifles be unavailable to private citizens? Call your congressperson here.
  • What if we simply added our signature to the countless petitions which are making their way through the blogosphere demanding gun reform?
  • What if we took to the streets and held rallies, maintaining awareness and keeping our collective consciousness engaged?

We are newly minted rabbis but we are also new fathers. Our babies were born just three weeks apart. As we look into our infant sons’ eyes, we see the hope and possibility of new life while remaining fearful of the world our children will inherit. When schools, houses of worship, even dance halls and nightclubs, become sites of mass murder we can’t help but ask aloud, is anywhere safe anymore? How much longer can we stand by as the blood of our innocent brothers and sisters cry out to us from the ground?

This post was written by Jonathan Leener and Avram Mlotek.

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and is pursuing a master's degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University
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