Monday, July 30, 2012

Aurora, Munich, and Devarim

Below is my sermon from this past Shabbat.  I apologize in advance for its length, but it is a topic I do feel passionately about

This past Wednesday evening, my wife Joy and I headed down to Columbia Mall to watch the Dark Knight Rises on their IMAX screen.  We don’t often go out to movies since we have had kids, but when we do, we like to see them on the really big screen.  The Dark Knight Rises, which I am sure most of you are aware of because of recent events, is the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, starring among others Christian Bale. 

            It is a dark movie.  And it is a long movie.  I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as the Dark Knight starring the late great Heath Ledger. 

            I mentioned to one friend that we were going to see the movie, and he said he was boycotting all Batman films unless they starred Adam West.

            And then we told my mother-in-law that we were going, and all she could say was, “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

            Of course her reaction was based on the senseless shooting and massacre that took place in Aurora Colorado just a week ago by a horrid and evil monster.

            There have been many reactions to this shooting.  Some were expected like the City of Aurora prayer vigil in which one of my colleagues Rabbi Joe Black participated.  Other reactions included national politicians removing their attack ads, at least for a short while from television screens in Colorado.  And there were some preliminary discussions about gun control.

            There have also been unexpected reactions to the shooting from the bizarre like AMC banning all people from showing up in costumes to movie screenings.  To the disappointing, like most in the political arena who say now is not the time to talk about guns and violence in our society.  To the simply stunned, like those who would say how upset they are that a place of sanctuary like a movie theater could be filled with such violence.

            In terms of a movie theater being a sanctuary, it is an intriguing idea, because for Israelis, there is no sanctuary.  At Israeli movie theaters, you will often find armed guards knowing the temptation a docile crowd can represent to a potential terrorist. 

            Of course they have learned this lesson all too often over and over again.  The first act of terrorism was certainly not at the Munich Olympics in 1972, but it had a devastating effect.  Israelis are always targets even at such aspirational peaceful gatherings like the Olympics.

            We were reminded of this on July 18, when a terrorist killed six people including five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, where their only crime was being tourists.  Which our media quickly forgot about especially in light of Aurora.

            The notion of a sanctuary from violence is more of a mindset than a reality.  Something we as Jews know all too well from events both recent and past.

            I will admit, I am still somewhat in a state of shock, not only by this shooting, but also by what transpired in Tucson on January 8, 2011 where nineteen were shot including Gabby Giffords, and where six died.

            I think I am still in shock because I had shopped at that Safeway on more than one occasion.  And I had the pleasure of meeting and even sharing a Shabbat Service with Gabby on more than one occasion.

            You factor in such attacks like the Virginia Tech massacre where thirty-two people were killed to even my alma mater where a gunman, from the top of the University of Texas tower shot and killed fourteen people in 1966, a prelude of more to come, and it would seem like we have an epidemic on our hands. 

            To quote from Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice written by Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, “It has already been said, ‘With all the violence and the murders and the killings we have in the United States … we must keep firearms from people who have no business with guns.’ Yet we do not heed the words despite the dramatic fact that they were spoken by Robert F. Kennedy five days before his assassination.”[1]

            And yet, shortly after the shooting in Aurora, pictures and statements were already circulating on Facebook that one well-armed civilian could have stopped the attacks.  Never mind that the lunatic, whose name I will not mention was wearing Kevlar body armor, and was firing into a crowd while setting off smoke bombs, as a distraction. Yet we as a society are generally infatuated with what I call the “Dirty Harry Syndrome.”  Namely that if we are armed; we can and will stop evil without harming ourselves or other innocent bystanders.

            According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa committee, which states in the case of a robber, “When someone threatens to kill you, you may prevent being killed by slaying the person before harm befalls you.  This applies even if there is no certainty that the intruder means to kill you.  For, coming at night and knowing that you will defend your property, the robber is likely armed and therefore must be considered dangerous.”[2]

            So our tradition does agree that we do have a right to arm ourselves for self-defense.  That is not the question here I believe.  The real question is to what degree do we have the obligation to be responsible gun owners? Or as comedian Jon Stewart pointed out, just because it is legal to own a gun, doesn’t mean it is legal for us to own a tank? 

            Others have pointed out the interesting juxtaposition that you have to present ID and be subject to a background check in order to buy Sudafed.  You have to take off your shoes, well some of us do, in order to board an airplane.  And we have to be trained and licensed to drive a car.  And yet, we should not be discussing how such an individual easily and legally obtained over 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the internet!

            I think we all agree, or many of us agree that gun legislation will not prevent such an attack in the future.  But it could make it much harder for lunatics to acquire semi-automatic weapons that no citizen really should have in the first place.

            As Vorspan and Saperstein go on to argue, “No one claims that gun control legislation is the neat and total solution to violence and crime.  But the fact is that it does cut down both the incidence of crimes in which guns are involved and the general rate of violent crimes.”[3]

            This is not to say that I am against guns.  I grew up in Texas where guns rank up there in the public consciousness right below God and football.  I have even shot an Uzi, a WWI German Mauser, and a .357 Magnum.  I have friends, colleagues, and even family who own guns. 

            But I do think it is reasonable and part of our tradition to ask, to what degree does the right to bear arms mean one has easy and open access to arms?  If we can’t entrust the general public to purchase Sudafed without some legal structures, perhaps it is time to reopen and reexamine this issue once again, no matter what the politicians and pundits might say.

            But we know, at least the cynics among us know, one does not discuss guns during an election year.  What a sad commentary indeed, for what better time to discuss such an important issue than during an election year.  For I believe it is possible for rational minds to come up with sensible solutions to this problem without taking away guns from responsible and legal gun owners.  And we should be reaching out to our elected officials, demanding that this is not a closed issue.  Not by a long shot, pardon the pun.

            But in lieu of actual substantive political discourse, what else can we do?  There are now several organizations including the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado you can donate to.  As was mentioned on the news last night, Aurora represents the convergence of two issues our society is wrestling with, gun violence and healthcare.  In this case, many of the victims are either uninsured or underinsured, and facing thousands if not millions in healthcare costs.  I’m sure any help would be greatly appreciated. 

            We can also donate blood.  Maryland in particular is facing a shortage, and if you are a potential donor, there are a host of upcoming opportunities.

            And on this one week anniversary of Aurora and on this fortieth anniversary of the convergence of terrorism and gun violence in our Jewish world we can also pray:

A Prayer for Peace – in the Aftermath of Terror
City of Aurora Prayer Vigil
Rabbi Joseph R. Black- Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
July 22, 2012

Our God and God of all People,

God of the rich and God of the poor.

God of the faceless and God of the famous.

God of the victims and God of all who cry out on their behalf.
God of those who have no God:
We have come together at this sacred and solemn hour to pray for peace.
These past days have been filled with horror.
We have seen the devastating effects of Violence on those killed and injured –on their loved ones – and on those who may have escaped physical violence but who bear painful wounds deep within their souls.
We have held tightly to our children and played out the scenarios of “what ifs” and “why nots” over and over again in our minds.

We are drained.

We are in pain.

And we are angry.

Tonight we pray: spread over us the shelter of Shalom – of peace – knowing full well that peace can seem out of reach in the aftermath of devastation.

Help us to see the potential for holiness that resides within each of us.

We have felt your healing presence in the outpouring of love and caring that binds this community together.

We have witnessed your love in moments of clarity that cut through the deafening sorrow that fills our hearts and our homes.

We have learned of selfless acts of courage that stir our souls and remind us of the inherent goodness you have implanted within us.

Guide us to see the good in the midst of evil.

Grant us peace – Your most precious gift – and help us to be partners with You in shining the light of peace in the darkest corners of Your creation.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav – Hu Ya-ahseh Shalom Ahleynu va’l Kol B’nai Adam – May the One who makes peace in the High Heavens –send peace to us and to all Creation.

And let us say: AMEN

[1] Vorspan, Albert and David Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time, pg. 27.
[2] Plaut, W. Gunther and Mark Washofsky, Teshuvot for the Nineties, Reform Judaism’s Answers for Today’s Dilemmas, pg. 291.
[3] Vorspan and Saperstein, pg. 30.