Rabbis Offer Guidance After Tragic Shootings

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A gun on the ground with its bullets taken out beside it
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It was a devastating weekend.

Two mass shootings left 31 dead and dozens wounded.

On Aug. 3, a gunman killed 22 shoppers in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. The alleged attacker, Patrick Crusius, is being held without bond for capital murder. At approximately 1 a.m. the next day, Connor Betts allegedly murdered nine people at a bar in Dayton, Ohio. Police killed Betts in action.

The massacres occurred just 13 hours apart.

According to a report by the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 251 mass shootings so far this year, including the attack on July 28, when a gunman killed three people and injured 13 others at a festival in Gilroy, California.

In the wake of the tragedies, local rabbis offered support and careful guidance.

“The messages of coming together, of working with others, the prayer for our country, all of those things are floating around my mind. As are issues of gun control,” said Rabbi Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall, adding, “but I am actually in a different place.”

“I want to contextualize this by putting it in the framework of where we are in the Jewish calendar,” he explained. “Saturday night will mark Tisha B’av, the destruction of the Temple. The three weeks leading into that are considered particularly sad periods. For it to happen during this period is actually particularly poignant.”

Despite the sorrow, the holiday brings hope, Rigler said.

“This Shabbat, the one before Tisha B’av, is called Shabbat Hazon, which means a Shabbat of vision. The idea is that although we’ve had these three weeks of sadness, for the first time, we get this glimpse of seeing past the destruction and starting to find comfort.”

In Judaism, the seven-week period between Tisha B’av and Rosh Hashanah is known as seven weeks of comfort, Rigler explained. The time provides space to move away from sadness, “finding comfort with God and with our community.”

Sometimes, Rigler said, such comfort and community is what’s needed in healing.

“This morning, I spoke to Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz in Ohio,” he said. The two were classmates in rabbinical school. When Rigler asked her what Philadelphia could do to help, she said, “Your call, already with the dozens of calls I’ve gotten from around the country, gives me the strength to go through the rest of today.”

He weighed her statement with the importance of the outpouring of support, blood donors and volunteers after the shootings.

“In the tremendous sadness and pain, I actually feel a sense of seeing what humans are capable of doing in response. To me, that is where God is found, in our response. That’s what I’m thinking a lot about.”

Rabbi Amiel Novoseller of Congregation Beth Tovim also looked toward Jewish tradition for guidance after the tragedies.

“The Torah is telling us, I’m going to give you the commandments,” he said. “But why do you need laws telling you to do the logical thing such as don’t kill? Because the inclination is somebody’s going to want to kill.”

As such, he said, violence is a part of uncivilized human nature. “If we were civilized beforehand, we wouldn’t need laws to tell us not to kill.”

The Torah provides a moral framework to guide us away from violence, he said, and we can embrace it with our personal actions. He urged people to “condemn such things and not just sweep it under the table. Don’t agree. Don’t agree that white supremacists are correct. Don’t agree that Nazism was correct.”

Rabbi Howard Cove of Beiteinu also noted the destructive power of hateful language.

“I’m discouraged that the only thing that I’ve heard in the last 24 hours is more name calling, more characterizing and judgment,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Cove does his part as a rabbi to combat the negativity.

“I do a prayer anytime I lead religious services,” he said, referencing the closing of the Amidah. “The title is basically ‘guard my tongue from evil.’ Maybe I can’t do anything in terms of policy, but I can control the words I speak, the tone of voice I use, especially around people who I disagree with.”

More than anything, Cove said he feels obligated to respond to the tragedies. He explained, “There’s a general principle in rabbinic Judaism that says it’s not our task to complete the mission, but at the same time, it’s our responsibility to do whatever we can.”

Rabbi Elchanan Abergel of Congregation Dibrot Eliyahu had a slightly different opinion.

“The Torah says very clearly: If somebody comes to kill you, you need to kill him before he kills you,” Abergel said.

As a result, he finds the inability of people to protect themselves in gun-restricted areas abhorrent, especially given that usually “the bad people still have guns and the good people are stuck without any protection. You cannot terminate (gun ownership) all the way, because this will affect the people who really need to protect themselves. We (Jews) need to protect ourselves. Definitely.”

While he cautioned against total bans, Abergel agreed more precautions were necessary.

“They need to find a way to do it but still give people the right to protect themselves. I’m not sure how they will do it, but something can be done.”

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