Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How do communities of faith respond to gun violence?

Images from Oak Creek, Wisconsin
This sermon was delivered at Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA on Friday August 10th.

What happens when the 24 hour news cycle brings our attention to two mass murders involving guns in the space of two weeks?

And what role does a synagogue community have in responding to these horrific events?

Depending on what Cable channels you are in the habit of tuning into, you may find yourself witness to a response that goes on the offensive – either for or against gun control. ‘Why is it legal for ordinary citizens to own guns that can fire off multiple rounds in a matter of seconds?’ sums up one side of the argument. ‘If someone else in the room had been carrying a gun, the crazy guy could have been taken out before he killed more people,’ sums up the other side of the argument. And there we find ourselves; choose one side or the other, and then shout down whichever perspective isn’t yours.

As to the second question, communities of faith can respond in many ways:

- We can first reaffirm our commitment to deeply care about the welfare of others. We can pray for all those who are hurting and mourning. If something happens close to home, we can show up because that’s how we express love for our neighbor. If we hear of other concrete requests that enable to reach out to communities suffering from these traumas, we can respond. To that end, during the oneg you will find a card on a table in the Oneg room tonight. I invite you to write a message on the card, or on the sheets of paper next to the card that will be included inside, which we will mail to the Oak Creek Sikh community in Wisconsin to express our condolences, prayers, and support.

- We can join together as a community for a moment of reflection and prayer – jointly expressing our emotions when we hear of these terrible acts. This we will do in a few minutes, with a prayer written by Rabbi Naomi Levy in response to the terror shooting at the Sikh Temple.

- Events like this always give us pause for thought as a minority faith community. We remember too well a time when synagogues were the targets for these hate crimes. We remain alert because we know that these times are not completely behind us. Additionally, Jewish organizations with expertise around issues of security and awareness have been offering their assistance to Muslim and Sikh communities.

- We can rededicate ourselves to building bridges with our brothers and sisters of faith. We will look for and create opportunities in this coming year and beyond to bring together our community with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others because, when we overcome ignorance, indifference, and unfamiliarity, we build understanding, respect, and strengthen all of our faith communities in the process. Our 7th and 8th graders will be invited later in the year to participate in the STOP program – an incredible opportunity that has been running for a few years now to visit many different places of worship and meet other young people of faith. If you have a child in those grades I hope you will encourage them to take this opportunity when it comes. Our Brotherhood received a small community grant to create a collaborative interfaith program, and I look forward to working with them to make it a reality. And our Social Action team are dedicated to finding interfaith opportunities to work together in the local community. If you are already involved in an activity that might fit the bill, please tell me or our Social Action chair, Jeff Govendo, about it so that we can help spread the word and find others in the congregation who may wish to join you in your efforts. For my part, I look forward to attending and meeting the clergy in the local Interfaith clergy association when they re-gather in the Fall.

- And what about the public debate? Is it possible to talk with each other in the context of a faith-based approach to the principles and values at stake in a way that doesn’t simply echo the narratives heard on MSNBC or Fox news? I’d like to think there is. One of things that I believe strongly is that, while we can always find Jewish ethical values to inform our conversation, it’s much harder to translate some of those values into specific policy in contemporary America. It is possible, but we have to recognize and admit that it is seldom black and white.

So, for example, one of the absolute highest values in Judaism is the value of ‘to save a life is to save a world.’ Any action we can take that may lead to the preservation of life trumps almost any other action. And so, for example, an observant Jew can break the laws of Shabbat to rush someone to the hospital. Organ transplants are now halachically permitted by most authorities because they save lives. But, there are exceptions. If you are held at gunpoint and told that you can save 6 people by picking up a gun and killing 1 person randomly from the group, you may not do so. You may not murder. This may defy your sense of what you might think was the better choice, but you are not permitted to make one life less valuable than any other. So even the value of ‘to save a life is to save the world’ isn’t entirely black and white.

How might this value be applied to the conversation about gun control? One could argue that if more people carried guns, they would be able to potentially save many lives by killing someone who opens fire on a crowded room. That is the argument that proponents of gun rights make. I see it a little differently. I am concerned that a whole load of people carrying guns, with varying levels of skill and training, may inadvertently cause a lot more physical harm, including deaths, in such a scenario. It would also seem to me that if we applied ‘to save a life is to save a world’ to the current debate at hand, we should be investigating some restrictions on guns that were designed to fire off a large number of rounds between reloads. It would seem to me that keeping these kinds of guns out of the hands of ordinary civilians would be in keeping with this highest of Jewish values. We can have the debate about how that conforms with American constitutional rights, but that is not the same thing as looking at the Jewish ethical perspective.

This has been how the Reform movement has historically understood this value to apply to the contemporary scene, and its one of the main reasons that the Religious Action Center has advocated strongly for stricter controls over the most dangerous kinds of guns.

There may be some in the room who draw different conclusions. It is not my job as your Rabbi to tell you what US laws are right or wrong, good or bad. But it is my job to raise up and present Jewish values that have informed our faith tradition as I understand them. And this is how I understand the rabbinic statement, ‘to save a life is to save the world.’

But let me conclude by returning to the reaching out we can and must do to those who have lost and suffered. I end with this prayer:

This prayer was written to recite for the victims and survivors of the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, wrote the prayer on behalf of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which distributed it to congregations around the world.

Let Us Stand Up Together (נעמדה יחד)
–From our Haftarah this Shabbat, the second Haftarah of comfort (Isaiah 50:8), by Rabbi Naomi Levy

We stand together in grief
For the innocent victims
Of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Who perished in their house of prayer.
May their memories be a blessing,
May their lights shine brightly on us.

We stand together in mourning
For broken hearts,
The senseless loss, the shock, the emptiness.

We stand together in outrage,
Weary of this war-torn hate-filled world.
And together we pray:

Send comfort, God, to grieving families,
Hear their cries.
Fill them with the courage
To carry on in the face of this tragic loss.
Send healing to the wounded,
Lift them up, ease their pain,
Restore them to strength, to hope, to life.
Gather the sacred souls of the slaughtered
Into Your eternal shelter,
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Work through us, God,
Show us how to help.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning,
Open our arms so we can extend our hands,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Let us stand up together
Our young and our old,
All races and faiths,
All people and nations.
Rise up above hatred
And cruelty and indifference.
Let us live up to our goodness
Let us learn from this tragedy
Let us walk together
Filled with hope
On a path of peace, Amen.

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