As a rabbi, I’ve had the horrible privilege of writing and speaking about the countless mass shootings that have occurred in this country. I wrote after Sandy Hook, after Las Vegas, after Orlando. And here I am again, writing because somehow we have not moved an inch as the blood of men, women, and children cry out from the ground.
In the mid-19th century, Rabbi David Einhorn stood at the pulpit of Har Sinai in Baltimore and gave a sermon on an issue many would have considered a “hot topic” of the time: the topic of slavery. He stood in front of his congregation, many of whom were slave owners and slavery supporters, and gave a well-researched, emotional sermon about why slavery should be abolished, why it was immoral, and why as Jews we should stand against it.
The sermon, as you can probably imagine, received a great deal of negative response: congregants walked out, congregants disagreed, congregants complained. But Rabbi Einhorn remained quiet all week, listening to the words of his congregants, until the next Shabbat, when he once again stood at the pulpit. That week, he gave a stronger sermon as to why he identified as an abolitionist and why his congregation should as well. He began his sermon with these words: “It seems I was not clear last week.” And what happened? Congregants walked out, congregants disagreed, congregants complained. A week went by, and the next week, he stood at the pulpit for a third time and said “I apologize for my last two sermons. Apparently I have not been clear,” after which he gave one of the strongest Jewish sermons ever recorded against slavery.
Why did Rabbi Einhorn do this? Because he understood the job of a rabbi, and the role of a teacher. The rabbi must be the Jewish authority of a synagogue, pushing the boundaries, and transforming the minds of congregants, even in the face of adversity. It is up to rabbis around the country to speak out after this week of more gun violence, more death.
The problem of gun violence in our country stems from not only white fragility, toxic masculinity, and fundamentalist beliefs of constitutional law, but mostly it stems from the issue of radical individualism in America. This is the basis for the lack of any gun control laws, and the lack of empathy for the grieving parents and siblings of those who have died from gun violence. But one could also argue (and I do) that radical individualism in America is also responsible for the anti-vax movements, anti-mask, lack of empathetic immigration laws, as well as larger issues of homelessness, racism, and homophobia. Why? Because the radical individualist American thinks: “The public are strangers, they said. What do they do for me? What can I get out of this?” Psychologists and cultural anthropologists have pointed out that this way of thinking is becoming more and more pervasive in society.
Fewer and fewer people are asking about how or what they can contribute to the world. Instead, it is far more common to hear people ask what they can get out of something, what the world can do for them, what they are entitled to. Science, research, and intellectualism are ignored in favor of the “me me me,” and “mine mine mine” mentality. Nowhere has this mentality become more dangerous then as it relates to gun control. Despite both science and research showing over and over the dangers of gun violence, and the need for gun control, what is being shouted by the NRA and from the general public? Don’t take away MY guns; these are MY rights. Like the anti-vaxers, those who are against gun control have forgotten that their rights and their guns affect the herd; they affect the public. Their rights have now become our burdens.
However, there is nothing LESS Jewish than this individualistic thought. Judaism in itself is, and always has been, a religion or culture of community. One need only glance through our understandings of worship, how we grieve, how we eat, the need for the minyan, to understand that we are not meant to do much alone. More than that, the biblical and rabbinic writings have plenty to say about communal responsibility.
We are told in Deuteronomy 16:20 not to pursue individual liberty but “Justice, Justice.” Judaism knows nothing of “charity,” the idea of the individual to give from your heart, but rather the concept of “tzedakah,” which obligates each citizen to create and maintain a just and equal society. We are commanded over and over in our Torah not to love ourselves, but to love our neighbors as ourselves. We see these messages over and over again in the teachings of our sages. Pirkei Avot 2:5 tells us “Do not separate yourself from the community,” meaning that we cannot value our individualism over the values of the community. More clearly, the Talmud Shevuot 39a, tells us that “All Jews are responsible for one another.” And then there’s the Midrash:
True, we Jews have always been grateful to the autonomy given to American citizens to build their own destiny, but just as Jews recoil at the anti-vax movement, or those who refuse to even engage in conversations about gun control, we recoil at those yelling about constitutional freedom to live (and most likely die) at their choosing. We do so because we still hear the words of our Talmud, Bava Kama 46a, which teaches:
Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a vicious dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text [Deuteronomy 24:8], “You shall bring not blood upon your house.”
In other words, individual freedoms, whether to own a vicious dog, or in this case an unsecured gun, or the purchase of an assault rifle, cease when those freedoms will inflict direct, preventable harm on another. Among those protesting regulations meant to safeguard us all, we have seen too many signs that read, “My freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.” No, it doesn’t, but in Judaism, your freedom DOES end when danger to me begins.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a famous social justice rabbi who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said: “In a free society, only some may be guilty, but all are responsible.” And we are all responsible. Isaiah told us to “beat [our] swords into plowshares, And [our] spears into pruning hooks.” The Psalms told us to “depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Leviticus 19, in the Hebrew, tells us, Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’echa, has several translations, all relevant, but the most pertinent would be “Do not profit by the blood of your fellow, and “Do not stand on your neighbors blood.”
What could be more different from the American ideal of individualism and self-focus? Whether it be the commandments to leave the corners of our field, to never neglect the orphan or the widow, the ideals of Judaism teach us again and again to focus our attention on the group, the kahal, the kehillah k’dosha, the holy community.
Gun control laws, background checks, the banning of assault rifles, all are the Jewish thing to do. They protect the community above the individual. They put the safety of the community, those in danger, above the individual rights of one person. There is nothing LESS Jewish than to brandish the 2nd Amendment and the American flag over the blood of innocents. Jews must unite around the world and remind those around us that it is the protection of community that creates stability and a prosperous future, not the selfish radical individualism. We have seen what that leads to, and it is simply a widening pool of blood in our country.