Opinion | A Rabbinic Call to End Gun Violence

A gun on the ground with its bullets taken out beside it
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By Rabbi Cecelia Beyer and Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Lev. 19:16)

“An act of violence is an act of desecration.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 85)

There are many forms of suffering in our world. Every day, people are ravaged by illness, endure natural disasters and experience tremendous loss. We cannot control these acts of God. But there is one kind of suffering we can change — a suffering we inflict on one another.

Gun violence is not an act of nature; it is under our control. This month, on the third anniversary of the shooting in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the fourth anniversary of the shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we must confront this crisis.

We must hear the cries of those who suffer. Every day, children and adults in inner cities are the victims of gun violence. School superintendents in Chicago and Oakland report to lose two dozen students to gun violence in their communities annually. Their Newtown experience never ends.

In the days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Rabbi David Lerner had the opportunity to stop in Newtown, Connecticut. Among the memorials to the incredibly young victims of this horrific attack, buried among many Christmas trees, was a tiny little Chanukah menorah that had been lit for Noah Pozner, a Jewish child and the youngest murder victim. Rabbi Lerner said “that little hanukkiyah reminded me that we as human beings can bring light to darkness.”

And it is in this spirit that we, the members of the Rabbinical Assembly, say #NotOneMore. Today, in the wake of numerous tragedies, 85 percent of all Americans and even 74 percent of NRA members support background checks for all gun purchases. So why haven’t we passed such simple legislation?

The Rabbinical Assembly calls upon the public to rise up with one voice and take three simple actions during this legislative session:

1. Urge your senators to support the Background Check Expansion Act (S.42), which closes the loophole that allows individuals and unlicensed gun sellers to sell guns without first performing a background check.

2. Urge your senators and representatives to support the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019 (S.506 or H.R. 1236). These bills allow family or law enforcement to petition in court for permission to remove weapons from people who are known to be a threat to others or themselves.

3. Urge your senators and representatives to support the first funding for research on gun violence in many years: Gun Violence Prevention Research Act (S.184) or Gun Violence Prevention Research Act of 2019 (H.R.674) or National Gun Violence Research Act (H.R. 435). The first step to saving lives from gun violence is establishing the facts. Allowing the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health to do so will save lives.

Our tradition provides ample support for such measures. The Talmud forbids selling weapons to idolaters or to sell weapons in a city of refuge (Avodah Zarah 15b, Makkot 10a). These cities were populated by criminals, and our sages rightly recognized the dangers of selling weapons to those who cannot be trusted with the responsibility of owning them.

As rabbis too often called to comfort mourners, we grieve with all the parents of slain children, the children of slain parents, the family members, the friends, neighbors and communities of those gunned down. They are all our children, family members, friends and neighbors, and we pledge not to stand idly by their blood, crying to us from the earth.

Upon the sidewalks that lead from house to house, in town squares and city centers and in far too many homes and church pews, we stand together before impromptu shrines of candle wax and teddy bears, basketballs and flowers. We are joined by grief for the fallen children, the murdered spouses, students and teachers, concertgoers, moviegoers and worshippers — innocents caught in the crosshairs of madness and hate, ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Guns in the hands of those who should not have them affect all of us as neighbors across America.

When mass shootings don’t make the headlines, the human cost of gun violence remains largely out of sight and out of mind. But nothing evades God’s notice.

Jewish tradition affirms that God is the one who remembers the forgotten. It is the task of rabbis and other faith leaders to testify on behalf of those whom God remembers, those whose lives have been needlessly lost.

This is a moment we can save lives.

This is a moment when we can effect change.

Let us not squander the moment, but learn and act.

The ancient rabbis taught that if you save one life — just one life — it is as if you have saved the whole world. We have many lives we can save. Enough of doing nothing.

This is our moment to say #NotOneMore.

Rabbi Cece Beyer serves as the interim cantor at Beth El Congregation in East Windsor, New Jersey. Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin is president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative-movement rabbis, and is rabbi at Am Yisrael Congregation in Northfield, Illinois.


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