Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Sermonic Response to Ray Rice and the Issues of Domestic Abuse


Below is an expansion of the sermon I gave last Shabbat morning.  It includes the fuller introduction I had originally written, which was cut for brevity and clarity of my spoken remarks.  It also includes some minor adjustments and additions as events have played out over the last 4 days, and some very sage suggestions made by a couple of people whose opinion I very much respect in response to the words actually delivered.

I am pleased that these remarks have sparked a continuing conversation of substance that is already leading to action within our congregation, as we are now planning an informational program for November 2nd, and discussing how to use the Holy Days to have information available to raise awareness of issues and programs.

As always, I welcome thoughtful, respectful response -- even more than usual, as this is a REAL issue that needs our attention!

Making Sure We are Able to Come In in Safety
A Sermon of Response – Parshat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel Bowie MD, September 13, 2014

First rule of sermon writing – have a clear head… so preparing Thursday may NOT have been the best idea in the world!  13 years later, and the flashbacks are still so jarring, the memories and images and emotions so vivid.  And I and mine were among the lucky ones! Given this reaction – and it happens EVERY year – I cannot even begin to imagine what someone truly suffering from PTSD deals with!

I share that honesty to begin this morning, because the topic I want us to discuss and think about may be just as challenging – if not for all of us, then certainly for some of us.  Our portion on this Shabbat is Ki Tavo – when you come in; it follows last week’s Ki Teitzei – when you go out.  Many have been the sermon for one or the other of these Sabbaths over the years that played solely on the names – in order to be truly comfortable coming in, you first must go out – physically, spiritually, emotionally – to fully appreciate just what it is that you are coming into.

Coming as they do each year, as part of the month of Elul – our season of introspection, soul-searching, and atonement-seeking in advance of the upcoming High Holy Days – this can hardly be seen as a coincidence.  That reality, plus the meat of the portion that deals with blessings and curses, often as the opposite sides of the same coin, and the need for self-discipline and adherence to our Covenant with God, combine to make this a truly powerful Shabbat message in any given year.

For me, today, and I suspect for many of you as well, that power, that poignancy, is greatly increased this year by the headlines of our week.  If ONLY we were free to acknowledge that Thursday marked the 13th anniversary of 9/11, that would have been powerful enough to influence our reading of Torah for this week.  And on this Shabbat when we turn upside-down our normal ritual pattern, in a subtle mirror of the changes that day brought to so many lives!  Stop and think about it – Jewish children born in the shadows of that day’s tragedy are celebrating becoming b’nai mitzvah on this Shabbat!  Can there be a clearer message that, even through tragedy, life, Jewish life, goes on!?

But, on the eve of that anniversary, we listened, or at least I did, as our oft-maligned Commander-in-Chief, a man who committed himself to bringing our young people home from fighting on foreign soil, laid out his plans for how America will lead the world’s fight to stop the Islamic State terrorists in their tracks, and break their hold over so many who did not invite them in, and how he did so with a clearly defined strategy that does NOT obligate the use of American troops on the ground for anything but training purposes, and then, fewer than 500.

And if THAT were the only headline of the week, we could still have a powerful and important debate, hopefully free from ideological bias and personal opinions of the man, on an incredibly important and challenging issue for us as Americans AND as Jews.  But, remarkably, Wednesday night and Thursday served largely as a distraction from the REAL issue of the week –

Ray Rice!  Everybody sick of hearing about this currently ex-football player with the Ravens, and the video evidence that surfaced this week that made the incident in which he beat his then fiancĂ© in a casino elevator back in February, was allowed to enter an intervention program and have his record expunged, and earned a whopping 2-game suspension from the NFL look like the brutal, remorseless assault it appeared to be on camera?  I know I am!  Except:

An incident that occurred months ago dominated the news and our discussions this week to the point of nearly dwarfing the equivalent of a declaration of war on the eve of the anniversary of one of our nation’s darkest and most unforgettable days!

Sadly, MOST of the smoke and mirrors this week have led us to every place BUT the only real issue raised by this whole sorry, obnoxious incident that really matters. Yes, in the long term, it may matter greatly whether the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, or even the local police and prosecutors in New Jersey took this case seriously enough, or acted appropriately, or preferred to sweep things under a rug, or possibly even willfully ignored evidence or lied when inconvenient truths came out from other places.  Yes, in the long term it may matter why these two people went through with their marriage even after this shameful incident, or why they appear hell-bent on staying together and supporting each other, or even what the true context of the hideous scenes we have now seen on grainy videotape really was.  Indeed, referring to it as the Ray Rice incident alone distorts where our focus should be!

But, the bottom line is that, unless there is a context so bizarre and so well hidden as to defy even the most trained professionals’ ability to recognize it, the centerpiece of this week’s headlines, denials, conspiracy theories and celebrity-obsessed focus should be the still too prevalent issue of domestic abuse (a phrase I changed at the last minute, with the breaking news of another player’s – Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings – alleged violence against a child or children)!  An issue that continues to bedevil our society, challenge our ideas of what healthy relationships and behaviors look like, defy our ability to prevent it, and leave far too many permanently scarred victims in its wake.

A statistic:  In the aftermath of the release of the video earlier this week, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline reported an increase of 72% in report calls!  A clear example of a cursed act becoming a catalyst to a potential life-saving blessing for many.  Proof that ANY improvement in preventing the moral ambiguity of high-profile cases like this will improve life for more than just those directly involved.  An affirmation of the Talmudic teaching from Sanhedrin:  One who saves a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.  But a sadly temporary, passing response, which tells us how much worse the issue really is, and cries for response even more!

A statistic:  According to the National Coalition for Domestic Violence -- 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 10 men have experienced or will experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime.   These numbers are somewhat fluid – another source says it is 1 in 3 black women, 1 in 8 Latino women, 1 in 17 white women, yet another, 1 in 4 women overall.  Whichever is accurate, those numbers are mind-blowing – their practical application even more so. 

Women – look to your right and look at the next woman you see in that direction; then look to the left.  Now look forward, and back.  If none of the 4 women you just saw is a victim of domestic violence, then, according to the general statistics, you would be expected to be.  Men – look around the room and recognize the minyan, the traditional quorum of 10 needed for public worship (and in the traditional world, they MUST be menbeyond bar mitzvah!)  According to these numbers, in ANY traditional minyan, there is likely to be a victim of domestic abuse.

Or look at it this way -- for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the 1 in 17 figure for women is the one that should apply to our congregation, and that the number for men is exaggerated by a factor of 2 (and btw, NEITHER of those assumptions should be statistically valid – they should lead to underestimation of our reality!  Using those numbers, given our current membership, then statistically, we should expect 6 men and 10 women in OUR community have experienced abuse (and the scary part here is that this methodology UNDERestimates our 18 – 24 year old population, considered to be the highest at risk age group!)  At that statistical level, which again, is less than what the reported statistical expectation would be, it is almost impossible to accept that we DON’T have at least one, and probably multiple real life victims living in our midst!  And THAT is a frightening realization, especially when we ask ourselves if we know who they are, or what we are doing to help them!?

This is not the first time I have spoken on this issue – publicly, or from this bimah.  A decade ago, when I first raised the subject, we were still working hard to overcome the myth that domestic abuse does not happen within the Jewish community.  It does, and sadly, at numbers comparable to the population as a whole.  Friends, this is NOT someone else’s problem, NOT a phenomenon happening somewhere else.  If it is NOT happening here, and I pray to God with everything I have that it is NOT, it is ONLY by the grace of God, or dumb luck, that we have been spared, and whichever of those is the source of our good fortune is likely to run out sooner rather than later.

I do not share these statistics and this math to bring us down – although admitting the truth when we have been in denial for so long often has that effect.  I share in the hopes of encouraging us to find solutions.  After all, compare the relative lack of awareness and knowledge of the issues in the Rice case – when the issue is domestic abuse – to those in the Peterson case, which deals with child abuse – a subject about which MANY reporting laws have been enacted! 

After that first sermon 10 years go, we started posting contact information from J(ewish) C(oalition) A(gainst) D(omestic) A(buse) in both the men’s and ladies’ bathrooms – because those are places that abused partners often can go without their abuser AND without generating potentially life-threatening suspicion that they might be seeking help.  In those first few months, as soon as the information would go up, someone would tear it down.  It wasn’t until we tried again a couple of years later, that we finally were able to keep this potentially life saving information on the walls, where, thankfully, it still can be found.  An improvement, but sadly, one which may have been achieved only after a victim, forced to confront a truth they still could not admit, and therefore choosing to act out by removing the reactive agent, was driven from the safety of our community, denied the opportunity to gain from our support and strength.  Clearly, we can, and must do more.

We must make this house of God, this center of our extended Jewish family and communal life, a safe haven for ALL people in ALL circumstances to come into.  We need to learn the telltale signs; to recognize the bruises, especially those that appear repeatedly on a regular schedule; to understand the psychology of abuse that allows abusers to hide in plain sight, and prevents their victims from seeking help, or even talking to a trusted friend honestly, we must become alert to the subtle emotional changes that are often the only outward clues.  We need to be willing and able to ask the tough questions, with non-judgmental compassionate concern; and we need to be willing to involve ourselves in something that is not easily seen as ours to get involved with, and do so without hesitation, like we do with indications of child abuse – when we have reason to believe that abuse is happening.  And if we cannot gain the entry we need to (dis)prove our darkest fears, or offer concrete assistance ourselves, we need to know to whom we can turn to hand off safely.

And, if that isn’t difficult enough, as this incident demonstrates, mostly in the worst ways, we have to be careful NOT to get overzealous in our cause, seeking out cases every place we have the slightest suspicion that there might be one; not to assume that every mostly private situation that looks like something always is; not to overreact to what we think we see.  The need to be sure, because of the trusts that often need to be broken to get help to those who need it without increasing their risk, and the severity of the need to act immediately when the abuse is real, these create a daunting reality – one which often scares away even those who in any other case would appropriately be the first responders offering support.

It is easy to get overwhelmed in the reality of personally recognizing a true case of abuse, just as it is easy to get overwhelmed with the constant headlines of a high profile case like this, to develop a fear of involvement or a fatigue, and not be available to be part of the solution.  This is why we cannot wait until we have a confirmed incidence; this is why we cannot be distracted by all the sideshow aspects of the Rice case, or just change the channel.

Karen Slone, the lay head of the social action committee of our sister congregation, Temple Emanuel, in Greensboro, North Carolina, wrote a powerful piece in response to this week’s distractions and carryings on.  In it, she did what many of us wish we could do in a serious moment of such highly charged public emotion – she looked at the emperor, and called him out for being naked!  She regretted that Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely – not because it took the video coming out to make it happen, but because by so doing, it took away the opportunity to make real progress against abuse. 

Her response?  Elegant, simple, and far more appropriate and effective than the suspension will be.  I elaborate on it only slightly, to make it more aware of the NFL’s realities, and have reordered the suggestions for logical reasons.

First -- mandatory anger management and relationship counseling – with no chance of reinstatement until all the counselors sign off that real growth has occurred.  If that takes a season, or two, or more – so be it!  What SHOULD matter here is both prevention (of future incidents), and recovery.  The leagues, and we as the public, need to stop looking at this as a legal issue, and look at it as a public health issue – the abuser is suffering an emotional (or mental) illness, and needs to be freed from other responsibilities and burdens to seek treatment and recovery.  Therefore, the path taken this week by the Vikings and Peterson, by which he has voluntarily accepted an “exempt” status that allows him to step away from playing in order to seek help and get himself together , while maintaining his income from the team, and allowing the team to protect their rights to his services when he returns (thereby sparing the league further embarrassment, loss of sponsors and other income, and possible law suits from the union and other players in similar circumstances).

Second -- a truly painful fine – perhaps the equivalent of the time missed in “exempt” status, once he is found guilty or in any way admits to his guilt – something that will assuredly make him think twice before ever abusing again.  And a suspension once he is cleared to return, as a way of acknowledging that his actions harmed the league and others besides himself and his partner.

Third, 20 hours per week of unpaid community service in a women’s shelter, for the same time he is away from the playing field.  Something that allows him to see victims other than his own, and be of service to them.

Fourth, make him the spokesperson for PSA’s against domestic abuse that run once every quarter of every televised professional football game every week for that same time that he is not playing – a combination of a modern high-tech scarlet letter that will be burned into him for life, and some actual teaching and awareness raising for society. 

Fifth, both the league and his team must match the money that he forfeits in fines, making them contributions to local shelters, anti-abuse efforts, and treatment programs to interdict and treat potential abusers before they abuse.   

THAT is a comprehensive program of proactive and reactive measures that actually address the issue of domestic abuse – and not just a PR band-aid designed to protect the value of franchises and a brand!  And Karen derives this, in part, from Heschel’s comment on human behavior in wartime – “… some are guilty; all are responsible.”  We need to take responsibility, and demand responsibility from those who make billions of dollars off the talents of violent men!

We need to start there – to take responsibility by raising awareness for ourselves and others, and by supporting shelters, anti-abuse and prevention programs locally.  But we also need to be prepared to go out ourselves – out from our comfort zone – and help to bring in those who are lost and in need of our support.  We cannot wait for them to come in on their own actively seeking our help, because that is an all-too-rare occurrence.  We have to make sure that they know that they are welcomed and valued – and safe and protected – here, with us. Nothing less will do.

It is the message of Ki Tavo.  It is the message of our atonement-seeking season.  It is Heschel’s powerful message, about which we will be hearing more in the coming weeks.  It is the message of the blaring headlines of our week now ended.  It is who we seek to be as a k’hillah k’doshah – a holy congregation!  And it is the only way to be part of the solution, rather than being dragged down into the problem!

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Closer Look at the "ALS Challenge" Phenomenon

I have watched, and read, with familiar eyes, over the last 48 hours, as a questioning of the latest viral element of pop culture, the “ALS Challenge,” took form.  Familiar, because it was inevitable – the challenge has become so publicized, so wide-spread, that it has taken on a life of its own.  And, in our internet world, it is only a matter of time before social criticism catches up to our behavior, and those with questions – legitimate and sometime otherwise –  become comfortable expressing an alternate viewpoint.

I, too, have some concerns about this phenomenon, but mine go in different directions, as you may have seen that I did follow suit and accept the challenge myself. The following is going to be somewhat long, but it represents my continuing evolution of thought on something that has clearly become the latest cultural phenomenon.  It may also at times come across as critical of positions other than my own.

Let me make clear at the start that I respect virtually every position naturally expressed in this discussion (including, btw, the deliberate denial of some, because the reality of this disease IS horrible -- beyond what some are capable of confronting -- and the road to a possible cure still seems an enormous distance away!) -- and even more, the dear friends who have expressed these thoughtful concerns. Sadly, in our day, we are dangerously close to losing the ability to have significant public discussions and debates on important issues when there is legitimate disagreement, even more when deeply held emotional positions are involved.  And therefore, simply engaging in this discussion in a thoughtful way is important for all of us -- whether it changes a mind, or convinces someone to contribute a penny.

We DO need to do better than dumping ice water over our own, or a friend's or loved one's head, and video recording it to share with others on social media.  We DO need to do better than using a high tech chain letter to put pressure on our friends and neighbors (and, thanks to the reach of the modern technology, people we have never (and will never) met or gotten to know.

But we also needed to do better in working to find a cure for ALS BEFORE this idea went viral, and part of that is raising awareness about the disease, and its impact on its sufferers, even before it leads (directly or indirectly) to raising needed funds.

And yes, a fair amount of money that has gone to ALS this year is money that went to equally deserving causes last year, and now will not go to those other causes this year.  This is sad for those other needs, and unfortunate, and a real and unavoidable consequence of living in an open marketplace society… and let me affirm, those other causes deserve our attention, awareness and support as well!

When the maker of a consumable product captures an increased market share, either by improving their product or (more often) by a glitzy, eye-catching PR move, we call that a success story in our consumerist, capitalist society.  I am confused why it should be any different here, ESPECIALLY when the origins of the challenge were with an ALS patient, who was searching only for a way to raise awareness about his reality (and maybe some extra dollars for research!).

Yes, there is something that needs to be addressed when the needed, and too-long delayed, increase in awareness about ALS comes about specifically because the disease was connected to a catchy and attractive exercise.  The ice water challenge was, as I understand it (and I could be wrong here), hit upon as an (admittedly weak by comparison to the disease's hideous reality) effort to provide healthy folks with a small and temporary approximation of the shock to the system, and creeping loss of feeling that ALS sufferers cannot escape, as a way of tangibly raising awareness by sharing (however small an approximation of) their reality.  Because, as the campaign went viral, and the videos became ubiquitous, THAT understanding was lost in the growing cultural phenomenon!  Once again, sad, but a virtually unavoidable response to the viral success in spreading the word!

Maybe the real issues here are NOT with that honest desire and effort to raise awareness or even in our all-too-human positive response to his suffering and reality once we are forced to confront it.  Maybe it begins with the equally human tendency to remain in ostrich-like denial until a disease like this strikes close enough that we can no longer bury our collective and individual head in the sand.

But maybe it is grossly exacerbated by the toxic and malignant growth on our society's capitalist system, which has led too many of those who are fortunate enough to create that product or that market plan, capture that market share, and convert it into huge profits, to care far more about maintaining and growing those profits for themselves than they do about what good they can do by using those profits to improve the human condition for people beyond themselves and their inner circle.

Because part of the ugly truth that requires us to change here are the huge profits pocketed by many at the top of our economic food chain, while too large a percentage of the philanthropic and charitable givers in America and the world today are those with far more limited funds, requiring us who do give to necessarily triage between competing worthy causes, sometimes under supporting  or ignoring completely causes we wish we could support (even though the sheer size of the occasional gifts from the top of the earning ladder usually control the decision making process for how our smaller contributions are spent!).

Sadly, any meaningful discussion of our concerns about what is wrong with the current reality MUST deal with these economic realities, even as we seek to improve our own awareness and behaviors.  And, given the role that the internet and social media played in the explosion of this phenomenon, the discussion must go there as well.  Both of these truths make it far more difficult for us to bring meaningful and necessary change to real human behaviors and profound needs.

But we cannot allow it to stop us.  This past Shabbat, we read the words in Deuteronomy that serve as both the motivation to create the prayer we Jews call Birqat Hamazon -- the "grace after the meal" -- and its essential core.  Sadly, most translations into English have made a subtle, but incredibly significant (at least to this discussion) mistranslation of a key word, when they read: "…when you have eaten, AND BEEN SATISFIED, you shall bless the Eternal, your God, for the good earth with which you have been graced…" (Dt. 8:10)

By translating the Hebrew word "v'savata" as "satisfied," rather than the more accurate (and appropriate) "and had your fill" (that is, enough to satisfy your hunger needs), what is intended as a statement of awareness that once we have done what we have to do for our own survival (and even allowed ourselves a little bit of enjoyment in the process, hopefully), we must remember to bless the Source of our life, all too often becomes an excuse to delay even more (or ignore completely) our acknowledging of God's role in our survival and well-being!

After all, how many of us have been raised, in our highly competitive, success-driven society, to "never be satisfied," even by our own success?  As usually translated, the verse seems to allow us to hold off on praising the Eternal until we (finally) ARE satisfied!  Which may very well be a significant contributor to the unfortunate economic reality we have already acknowledged, and bewailed!

One other Jewish note -- several of my well-educated, deeply socially conscious friends have invoked Maimonides "ladder of tzedakkah” (the technical Hebrew term is best understood as far more than mere "charity," but as righteous, charitable giving from our bounty to help others).  I appreciate their doing so, as we can always stand a little more Jewish knowledge and awareness in our social consciousness.

However, most of them (however accurately) refer exclusively to the highest level of giving when they do so, and, in the process, unintentionally, imho, sacrifice one of the brilliant teachings of the medieval master to another one.

Maimonides posits 8 levels of giving, each one a little more virtuous, a little more desirable, a little more valuable to the giver, to the recipient, and to society as a whole.  The “lowest” level is described as “when donations are given grudgingly.”  Some translations also include the phrase “only after the donor is specifically requested to give.”  The “highest” level is understood as “to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.”

The truth is that the fact that Maimonides chose to express this understanding in the form of a ladder is significant.  Yes, he clearly wants us to understand what the optimal form of giving should be, and encourages us to reach for that top rung of the ladder and achieve it.  However, the ladder matters, too, in this teaching.  BUT, by focusing on the highest rung only, we lose sight of the journey to that goal, which, at least for me, has always been an integral part of the lesson as well.

Some of us need to start the climb at the lowest rung – in real life with a real ladder, because we may have shorter legs, or be afraid or a little unstable standing on the ladder.  We progress slowly, cautiously, step by step.

Others, perhaps with longer legs, and more experience on ladders, might put that first step on the second rung (or even more visually obvious, in climbing DOWN the ladder, be willing to jump down to the ground from even higher!), or choose to progress by skipping steps.

Either way, the goal is the same – to reach the height we seek to reach.  Sometimes, we only have a long ladder for a short climb, and our short-term goal is a height well below the top rung.

However, when it comes to tzedakah, to helping others (to help themselves), Maimonides (and those who have been invoking him in this discussion) correctly assumes that we are all striving to reach the top rung.  It does not matter where we hop on the ladder, does not matter how fast or slow, how steady or halting our progress is.  To apply the mistranslation from Deuteronomy here, we should not be satisfied until our giving reaches, and pulls us up, to the uppermost rung.

However, and this is the key point (to me) that I fear is missing in this discussion (at least so far) – few of us are so good at giving, that we can automatically jump to the top rung!  Indeed, if we all were, the odds would be greatly enhanced that research to cure diseases like ALS would already have so profited from our much greater human generosity, that challenges like the ice-water challenge would not even be necessary!

And since we are not there yet, we must not only allow, but encourage, in every way possible, those who are not yet at the top rung, or not even on the ladder yet, to be comfortable starting or continuing the climb from wherever they are currently at, wherever they are able and comfortable.  If that means, in the short term, that we need a “gimmick” like the ice water challenge to raise awareness and willingness to contribute, to get more people onto the ladder, more people moving up it, then so be it.  AS LONG AS WE DO NOT ALLOW THE GIMMICK TO BECOME AN END UNTO ITSELF!

And making progress up the ladder DOES require us to do all that we can to make sure that our giving to this cause is an “and,” and not an “or.”  To the greatest degree of our ability to do so, our giving to this cause cannot come at the expense of giving to other causes.  To fully honor those we seek to honor by our giving to ALS research, we can not allow it to come at the expense of those other donations we make to support equally worthy causes.  Because, if we fail at this, then our efforts to elevate humanity, and to bring help and healing to others, instead becomes a hideous cousin of the “Survivor” experience – that there can only be one winner, who succeeds only by voting everyone else off the island.

I, like many of the critics of the challenge, DO prefer to do tzedakah privately… because it IS a higher level of giving.  BUT, I am also a Rabbi -- a public figure, a teacher, hopefully a role model.  I live a large part of my life in the public eye.  And therefore, even as I respect and affirm my friends’ accurate desire to keep their giving private, to aspire to higher levels, I also realize that, at least for me, there are times when going public CAN serve a bigger good.  And therefore, I CHOSE to share that I was not only taking the plunge with the ice water, but ALSO making a contribution – to encourage others, who might be tempted to see this as an either/or NOT to make that mistake – but rather, to contribute money yes, but also to contribute to the cause by raising awareness through accurately and properly passing forward the intended message.  I did not, and will not, share publicly how much I am donating to this (or any) cause – that is between me, ALSA, and God.  But, I also hope that my decision to take a step DOWN the ladder for myself allows and encourages others to take a step forward UP the ladder, and helps bridge the gap between what I CAN give to this cause, and what I wish I could!

I, like many of the critics, am concerned about the element of appearing to shame people into giving, that is inherent in a social media version of the old fashioned chain letter.  Those letters, generally consigned to the scrapheap of human experimentation, attempted to guilt people into keeping a chain alive by playing on their fears, and emphasizing, in urban legend form, the terrible things that (may or may not have actually) happened to others who made the mistake of “breaking the chain.”

I was incredibly intentional in my selection of whom to challenge.  And yes, I freely admit, one of my factors was challenging people whom I wanted to see doused in cold water!! HOWEVER, it was far from the ONLY factor.  I deliberately chose people from disparate areas of my friends list, both in time and space; deliberately chose people who I thought, for a variety of reasons, would make good “messengers” for the cause – their vocations, their locations and ability to spread the message to areas that might not yet be over-fertilized (like my newsfeed has become), their possible connections to people who have experienced the disease, their ability and willingness to give to a good cause like this, their personalities – the willingness to risk a little public embarrassment for a good cause, their desire to be part of educating the masses.

There was never an intent to shame anyone into anything – indeed, not all of those I challenged have (at least so far), posted video.  I hope (but do not know, and am fine with not knowing) that they are all making contributions of some form… but then again, I hope that of all 1400+ of my Facebook “friends” – whether I challenged them or not.  The possibility that I might be “shaming” any of them never entered my mind – perhaps it needed to, and is yet another “catch-up” we must make to living in the social media age!  But it never did.

However, the “art of the ask” – the centerpiece of successful fundraising – necessarily involves an element of putting pressure on potential donors – at least until their awareness and experience of the need or cause reaches the level when they need not be convinced to give (but still may need to be “encouraged” to give “more”).  So, I can only apologize if my actions put UNDUE pressure on any of my friends.  And question whether any such unnecessary, unwarranted, and undesired pressure outweighs the benefits of using social media to reach a far greater audience for what I consider to be a good cause.  I believe it still does, despite the blow-back discussions now underway.  I hope I am accurate in that assessment!

I thank my friends who have not walked in lockstep to follow this latest fad, for forcing me, and others, to think more clearly about my actions and my motivations, and the value of my efforts.  I especially thank them for the thoughtful ways they have chosen to do so – ways that allowed the message of greater awareness and support to still move forward!  I respect their right to question – encourage it.  I agree with the critics – the ALS challenge is an imperfect undertaking.  However, for me, by definition, it MUST be so – it is a human undertaking!  Whether it is a better effort than other similar efforts, I cannot judge, and have no need to.  I will say, however, it was effective with me, and apparently with many others.

Can we do better?  Yes, because until we are perfect, we CAN always do better next time!  And next time we will hopefully learn from this effort and do even better.  Because, when it comes to helping others, to working to eliminate pain and suffering, then the mistranslation of Deuteronomy we mentioned before really does apply – we should never be fully satisfied until ALL pain and suffering are gone from human experience!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

“Everything I Need to Know I would Have Learned At 6 Points (if it had only existed back in the day!)”

[the words below are a transcription after the fact (and slight expansion) of my d’var Torah to the URJ 6 Points Sports Academy for Shabbat Pinchas – Saturday, July 12, 2014]

… So our portion, Pinchas, has many good messages.  From both God’s call for Moses to take a new census of the people in the 40th year, and the back and forth as God called Moses up onto Mt. Ebarim to see the Promised Land he would not enter, we can clearly see that one of those messages deals with times of transition.  I like to call such moments “L’dor vador moments,” using the Hebrew phrase that denotes movement from one generation to the next.

L’dor vador moments don’t only happen in Torah.  The other night, I was honored to receive my “5-year” 6 Points sweatshirt.  For me, that was a l’dor vador moment – not because of me, but because I was able to share it with so many of you, and together we could, however briefly, recall the people and memories, the lessons, the fears and tears, and the smiles, jokes and laughter we have shared along the way.  DONKEY [note: say it like Shrek, and understand it was a moment in my first d’var Torah that very first summer – on Balaam!]

I have been doing this camp thing for over 40 years – which, I am pretty sure, is longer than at least someone in this room’s PARENTS have been alive!  I mention that not to make myself feel old (although it definitely DOES!), but because in that time I have learned an important lesson ABOUT time – it moves differently in different places.  Here at camp, while it is happening, days seem to disappear much faster than at home.  Yet, when we look back, two weeks feels more like it was 2 months, doesn’t it?

And a generation – as in l’dor vador – is different in different places.  In the Torah, 40 years is usually a generation.  In real life, it is more like 20 years.  But, in camp time, 5 years is about a generation.  SO – if we are giving out our first batch of 5-year sweatshirts, we are turning the corner from the founding generation of camp to what I am going to call 6 Points 2.0.

You all, as campers, are 2.0 (the youngest of you maybe even the start of 3.0!).  When we came that first summer, even the second and third, we had little idea what to expect, because so much was new.  Now, the creation work is done, and the questions shift from What? to Who? or How?  Look at the CITs and staff today who we met as campers, and some of the leadership team who were first year staff back in the day.  We aren’t even the NEW 6 Points any more!  And, I believe we have more staff and CITs here right now than we had campers in session 2 that first year!

I plan on being as big a part of 6 Points in version 2.0 as I have been so far – as long as Alan and you all will have me here.  But, in life, you can never be sure, so rather than take a chance of never getting to share these words, I want to leave you with a list I have compiled.  It is based on one of my favorite essays, by Robert Fulghum.  I call it “Everything I Need to Know I would Have Learned At 6 Points (if it had only existed back in the day!)”

1.    Play hard.  Have fun doing it.  And play fair.  Because anything worth doing is worth doing right, and better when you fully enjoy it.
2.    Life has value, especially when your life is lived with values.  And those middah bracelets look so good and make great memories in the middle of winter!
3.    The day is much more enjoyable, and you learn a lot more when you are part of a team, and not just hanging out alone.
4.    Surprise packages from family and friends are ALWAYS great – even when you don’t get to keep EVERYTHING in them!
5.    Coaches really DO know a lot.  So do other adults and leaders and even your peers (which at home also translates to bosses, parents, and siblings!).  Listen to them, and even if you don’t let on that you are listening, you can learn and grow a LOT!
6.    If you are lucky in life, you have a great family.  If you are REALLY lucky in life, you might get to “create” a “family” of friends just as powerfully good, and enjoy them for many years.  I am REMARKABLY lucky!
7.    Anything worth saying is probably worth singing… with hand motions, and echoes, and harmony…
8.    Big challenges can be overcome by breaking them down into a series of small fundamental steps – and mastering each one separately, one at a time.  After all, how DO you eat that 500 pound elephant?!
9.    Don’t be afraid to take smart, safe chances and try new things.  And remember that camp, under proper supervision, is a great place to serve as the laboratory for those experiments.
10.    Always have a spotter, or a partner – to have your back, to see things you cannot see yourself, or to give you a different perspective, to give you feedback, or, in the words of Jerry MacGuire, “to complete” you.

I am sure there are more, but 10 seems like a really good number to remember!

And all too soon, we will be looking back on this summer, because of how fast time passes at camp.  So, before it becomes a set of amazing memories, don’t waste a minute of your opportunity to live those memories NOW!  
Shabbat Shalom!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The words below are my response to a John Henry Bell, Jr.'s blog attempting to shed more accurate light on the smoke and headlines emanating from the Presbyterian Church's vote this week to divest from 3 American companies because of their role in supporting Israeli policies on the West Bank which they (justifiably, if not 100% accurately) find morally troubling.

His blog can be found at:

and should be read in their totality to fully understand my words below.

I was impressed by his sincerity, his apparent passion for peace and understanding, and the clarity of his writing.  My response was made, in kind, in the hopes of bridging the self-created obstacles towards continued partnership, dialogue, and working for common goals that this vote must inevitably create between Presbyterians and Jews, to help him and others try to similarly understand the places where his words do not fully recognize the issues that I, and many of you, my readers, have in the PCUSA's action.

My tone is muted, and my focus limited to his words, in contrast to the powerful response of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), issued after I originally posted.  That statement can (and should) be read here:

In addition, I also highly recommend the printed statement of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), distributed in advance of his speech to the PCUSA assembly:

I shared there, and here, in the hopes of continuing a discussion that many may now be pressured to end, at least temporarily -- a critically important partnership between partners that have a great many common agenda items.  As always, I invite response.


I thank you for your attempt to clarify, against the sound bite mentality of our modern day, the actions you believe were taken at the PCUSA gathering this week.  I also thank you for you passion -- both to your faith, and to the truth, as well as to the effort to bring true and lasting peace to Israel and the Palestinians.

I do not know you -- so I do not even know if I should be addressing you by a particular title… I came to your post because of the response to it from my colleague, Rabbi Joe Black.  So the above comments are based upon my reading of your words here.

In the interest of a shared desire to work together towards peace, in the spirit of shared mission that Rabbi Black shared in his blog on this subject, I must speak to a couple of specific points as a Rabbi.  First, your failure to mention at all the continued presence on the PCUSA website of the anti-Israeli and factually untenable screed that your own votes disavowed this week, and the role that it played in influencing opinion on this matter is an unfortunate oversight.  The continued influence of this blatantly biased propaganda severely undermines the power of your own words, and those of the resolution, of support for the State of Israel, words which I dearly want to believe, and DO see played out in my own relationships with our local Presbyterian church's clergy and laity.  At best, this appears to be a deliberate effort on the part of the framers of the resolution to have it both ways on the issue -- a position which is NOT in the best interest of sincere efforts towards peace, but rather a calculation to get a resolution passed.  I hope I am wrong -- but the "eye test" on this leaves me little other choice of interpretations.

Second, the deliberately featured involvement at the conference of a fringe group of Jews, who represent only their minority extreme viewpoint, whose funding is shadowy and suspect, whose Jewish support for their position in favor of BDS is hardly mainstream, cherry-picked by the same long-standing anti-Israel wing of your movement responsible for the flawed, inaccurate "study guide" in order to give Jewish credence to their positions is an affront, and a serious obstacle to continued good-faith efforts in dialogue and partnership in these and the many other areas of common cause between our movements.  The absence in your words of any recognition of the internal politics, or the role played by this group in such a close vote, much less a repudiation of the same, does nothing to overcome that newly created obstacle.

Third, I appreciate your attempt -- both in your own words, and in those of the resolution -- to distance your vote to divest from American companies from support for the global BDS movement, which has, as its clear goal, the delegitimization of the State of Israel in the court of public opinion, by convincing organizations like yours to put economic pressure on Israel.  However, emphasizing that you were only acting to divest from American corporations in this resolution is disingenuous at best, and will be lost on the majority of those who hear of your action, because your reason for doing so is an objection, however morally based, to their perceived role in supporting Israeli settlement policy to which you object.  Further, your decision ignores, in particular, the efforts taken by Caterpillar to work FOR the same peaceful, two-state solution I join you in supporting.  But most dangerously, in the spun bite environment you rightly express concern for as your reason for writing this blog, I assure you that the leadership of the BDS movement is already trumpeting their victory as seen in your vote!  They have every right to do so, now that you have placed your vote into the public discussion -- and their doing so will only weaken your ability to act as agents in bringing the peace we all seek to bring.

And that would be true even if the language of the portion of the resolution which allegedly rejects such a connection were clearly and unambiguously written.  The vague language, and use of an obfuscating double negative in the last sentence of that resolution point have created a text whose meaning is virtually unintelligible.  If the version you have included is the correct actual text, your movement has not disavowed anything in those words.  If it is not, please do yourself, and the rest of us, the service of correcting what the text actually says, hopefully in favor of clarity of language that matched the moral clarity you seek to assert.  As currently shared, your contention is not matched by the evidence you provide.

I thank you for this opportunity to organize and put into writing my disappointment at the outcome of this vote, alongside my desire to continue to work together with my Presbyterian friends and colleagues to improve our world and bring peace to the Middle East.  I hope you can understand the concerns of the Jewish community better from my sharing, as I believe I better understand both the sincere desires of the majority of your movement, and the real issues moving forward.

It is my intent to post this response to you on my own blog, and for the sake of better understanding for my readers, I will be posting a link to your blog as well.  I hope I cause no offense or problem for you in doing so.  And most of all, I wish you peace.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

An Anniversary Too Important to Let Slip By Unnoticed

I am blown away at how little attention is being paid to the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  And so, I have been moved to words, and to sharing them through this too often ignored vehicle...


7 Score and 10 years ago, today,
An American President –
A giant, both in his day, and in history –
Travelled to a blood-soaked battlefield in Pennsylvania –
Site of a critical moment in our nation’s history –
And began, while the war still raged around us,
The process of sanctifying the ultimate sacrifice of those who gave their lives,
And the holy work of reuniting and healing our nation.

Few gathered that day could have anticipated
What that visit, and the speech that he gave on that occasion,
Would come to be in our nation’s history and psyche.
How 10 sentences, scrawled by hand on an envelope back,
Could totally capture the gravity
Of the event being remembered,
And the site of the battle,
And the needs of all the American people
For wholeness and peace.
Nor would anyone in Gettysburg that day,
Have been able to believe
That the visionary, compassionate architect
Of this needed reconciliation
Would be taken from his country
Even as the embers of the last battle guttered down.

His simple words from the heart that day
Guided a people still divided,
To begin to find their way back to one another.
They turned those blood-stained acres
Into a national shrine –
One to which we all had equal access
and of which we could all claim ownership,
One which still awes its visitors with its immensity and quiet holiness today.

Today, we barely even pause to remember –
And if we do remember, we do so
Without looking inside of ourselves,
Without acknowledging our country’s reality –
We give no honor to the man nor to the moment we recall.
It is as if we do not remember,
Choose not to learn,
The lessons of that day --
The battle that preceded it,
And the war that raged around it still.
It is as if all of the herculean efforts of the man –
First to keep the Union intact,
Then to keep us from self-destruction,
And finally to bring us towards reconciliation –
Were nothing more than mere words
Scribbled on a piece of paper,
Destined to be only noted and remembered,
But sadly, still, never fully taken to heart in our national life.

And so, as we remember on this solemn day,
Let us pledge to ourselves and to each other,
To keep faith and make real his soaring words on this day –
To keep the memories of those he came to remember,
And what they gave their lives for, as well as he, his own --
That government of the people, by the people, for the people
Shall not perish from the earth.

Rabbi Stephen J. Weisman

November 19, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Morning After

The Morning After

It is the morning after the horrific and still unexplained shooting rampage at The DC Navy Yard yesterday.  Just after 7 AM, I am driving carpool, trying as best I can for myself and my teenaged son, to return to normal and go on living life.  As a Rabbi, days removed from Yom Kippur, the holiest, most reflective day of our year, it is what I expected to be doing today.  But not for these reasons; not in this way.

My favorite radio station (that doesn’t play songs), is not helping – they are still in “total coverage mode” – only traffic and weather on the 8s, sports at 15 and 45, and commercials breaking up their non-stop focus on exactly one story.  So I switch it off, and plug my iPod, on scramble, into the car’s sound system.  I smile at the familiar melody – Maureen McGovern singing the theme from “The Poseidon Adventure” – until the words start to register:

There's got to be a morning after, if we can hold on through the night --
We have a chance to find the sunshine.
Let's keep on looking for the light.

Oh, can't you see the morning after?
It's waiting right outside the storm.
Why don't we cross the bridge together, and find a place that's safe and warm?

Nice, prayerful words, but clearly we are not there yet, I am not there yet.  I snap off the iPod as well, and we drive on in silence.  Maybe it is the heightened focus that the absence of talk and music provides, maybe it is me projecting my own troubled soul this morning.  But it sure seems like more of the “drivers” with whom I am trying to share the road are being just a tad more aggressive than usual this morning.  Or maybe I am being a little more cautious, unconsciously overcompensating?

A quick look at the numbers flashing from the dashboard of my still new Prius-V reassures – it isn’t me.  If anything, I, too, am ignoring that feedback more than usual, driving a little more aggressively myself.  It is scant reassurance, as the BMW pulls out to speed around me on the left as I drive north in the left lane of Rte. 197, endangering all of us with her selfish recklessness.  I watch, bemused, as the only “normal” behaviors displayed on the drive are the slowing down for the speed cameras, and the compensatory drag-strip speeding to get to the single lane stretch of the road, seemingly on display from even more drivers today.

I look over at my teenaged son, reflecting on his reaction yesterday.  Sure, it was triggered by being told that the Nationals’ game we had planned to attend had been cancelled, because the ballpark is right next to the site of the shootings, but he has been in a deep funk ever since he heard what had happened.  I think to myself just how many times he and I had gone through yesterday’s drill – 9/11, the sniper, Sandy Hook, now yesterday – and too many other smaller ones in between to even remain distinct in my memory.

As I drop him off at school, and test news radio again for my trip home, I hear the questions about whether this shooter might have been suffering from PTSD, the concerns that those who innocently went to work yesterday, only to find themselves the focus of nation’s attention for the day through no fault of their own, might now similarly be impacted.  I find myself wondering if David’s response was, in itself, a form of PTSD – the product of too many such exposures.  And I find myself wondering how many others might be going through our day today, similarly suffering a low-grade form of the disorder.  Am I?  And what help is available for those of us who are?  Will they do something at school to help the kids recognize and deal with their thoughts and emotions?  Or will they, as I had earlier, try to make it just another normal day by ignoring it as best they can?

And then – what do I need to get myself back to normal?  How can I get it?  As a Rabbi, what can I provide for others?  Suddenly, my inner dialogue is channeling Howard Beale – Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliantly written character in “Network,” and the iconic monologue brought to life by Peter Finch.   I AM mad as hell, and I am NOT going to take it any more!  And I want EVERYONE to go to their windows, open them, and scream the words out with me.

But then, I want us to actually DO SOMETHING!  I find myself wondering if maybe, just maybe, this time, the close geographic proximity of Capitol Hill to the site of this tragedy might make it personal enough for our elected representatives to drop their partisan political stalemate, to ignore the craven efforts of the gun lobby to buy their votes, and FINALLY pass common sense gun regulation.  Real, enforceable laws that might begin to save lives.

I find myself ruefully admitting that even I have lost track of how many innocent Americans have lost their lives in gun violence since the Newtown, CT tragedy, and vow to look it up when I get home.  Slate reports the number is at least 8,238, but also notes the difficulties of keeping track, the historic underreporting of such events, and the comparison to the best CDC data, which suggests the actual number is three times as many, at over 25,000!  In less than a year!

Another sound byte draws my attention, even through the reverie.  As a more complete picture of yesterday’s shooter emerges, it becomes clear that he most likely acted alone.  The hysterical over-reactions in the heat of the moment yesterday are now giving way to the awareness, as my radio reports, that this was “just” another workplace related shooting, that happened to occur on a highly protected military facility.  “Just”?  Like somehow that makes it less painful, less significant, less tragic?  I want to call a VERY un-Rabbinic “BS” on that one!

But I listen to what else we have learned about the shooter over night.  The bizarre 2004 shooting he was suspected of being involved in, and his father’s response at that time, when questioned, that he was concerned his son was suffering from post-9/11 related PTSD himself.  The lack of an arrest in that case, which kept him free to purchase weapons.  The lack of evidence that the shooter was ever treated for this supposed PTSD, or whatever other emotional issues he manifested.  The equally bizarre incident in Texas a couple of years ago, in which a gun in his apartment discharged a bullet into the unit above his.  How that incident had been dismissed as being a gun-cleaning misfire, even though the woman in the unit above testified that there had been friction between them, and she was fearful of what he might do to her one day.  The long-term pattern of anger management issues, and difficulty accepting negative criticism from work supervisors and others he apparently evidenced, including the recent criticism of an installation job he had done at the Navy Yard.  That job apparently provided him with the credentials that he showed to get onto the base, the credentials that cleared him through the gate without an inspection of his vehicle, or the discovery of the three weapons he brought with him.

And I cry a bit.  WHY is it so easy to see the pattern through the tears shed in grief, when we look back, yet NOTHING prior to yesterday even raised a red flag that might have prevented yet another tragedy???  Once again, I realize, the high profile cases, like this one, even as they raise our awareness of the need for change, are actually the events LEAST likely to be prevented by any honest and enforceable changes in gun laws.

So I start to question what I can even say that will be of value.  My mind goes to the President’s words yesterday:  "These are men and women who were going to work doing their jobs and protecting all of us," Obama said. "They're patriots. They know the dangers of serving abroad, but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home.”  As I marvel at the eloquence, and the honesty, it dawns on me – he stopped too soon!  There needed to be another clause or 2 at the end, delivered with appropriately dramatic ellipsis.  “… but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn’t have expected here at home…. That they shouldn’t NEED to expect here at home…. That NO ONE should have to expect here in America.”  Even Obama’s eloquent, heartfelt sadness failed to express our simple outrage that every life is too valuable to be sacrificed to political infighting and selfish lobbying!

Maybe it is the close physical proximity to me and mine this time.  Maybe it is the impact I fear I am seeing on my son, or am starting to realize may be affecting me as well.  If these are factors, then all too soon after the atonement for last year’s shortcomings, I find myself seeking forgiveness already again, for being motivated by personal and selfish factors.

Or maybe it is simply that proximity to Yom Kippur, during which my own sermon on the situation in Syria included a significant element on the dangers of remaining silent.  A sermon which quoted Edmund Burke, Pastor Martin Niemoller, and Pirkei Avot, and the amazing, if too-often overlooked, remarks of Rabbi Joachim Prinz that served as the warm-up to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he shared:

“…When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence….”

It also included a remarkable text from Exodus, chapter 5, and a mini-drash by my colleague, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, whose father was, amongst an incredibly gifted and caring collection of religious school teachers in my youth, my favorite and the most inspirational.  The younger Rabbi Creditor is also a tireless activist for gun reform, one who teaches and inspires me on a regular basis:

"[After Moses spoke to Pharaoh, Pharaoh increased the workload of the Israelite slaves.] Moses returned to God and said, 'God, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.' (Ex. 5:22-23)" -- When something is wrong, naming it usually makes it feel worse before there's any hope of things getting better. It's therefore tempting to not confront problems. But while acknowledgment is painful, living a redemptive life can begin no other way.”

Whatever the reasons – good, bad or indifferent; personal or inclusive – I can, I will remain silent no longer.  Nor will I stop at simply speaking and teaching.  I must act.  WE must act.  The ONLY way that needed change will come, the only way that this will be the LAST “morning after” one of these tragedies, is to change ourselves, to change our culture, to change our laws.  To become MORE aware of those around us, more sensitive when a fellow traveler is in need of help, more courageous in breaking the silence, and helping them get the help they need to heal BEFORE they go out and harm others.  To work HARDER, and more insistently, to change a culture that is more concerned with protecting the dubious right of an individual to hold weapons and ammunition that allow him to murder wholesale before he can be stopped than it is with our right to live our lives free from the fear of such attacks.

Because this morning I was reminded how blessed I am to have been once again spared direct, physical loss in such a tragedy.  But I was also made painfully aware that I, and all of us, are never completely spared.  This morning I grieve – for all the victims of this gun violence and their families.  But starting this morning, albeit it on a different level, I refuse to be conned into denial that I – and all of us – are NOT victims.  Until it stops, we are ALL victims.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Common Sense, Jewish Approach to Curbing Gun Violence

A Common Sense, Jewish Approach to Curbing Gun Violence
A First Draft to Start the Discussion
And Develop a Comprehensive, Ethically Based Model
Rabbi Steve Weisman
Temple Solel, Bowie MD

 DISCLAIMER:  I do not pretend to be an expert on gun ownership or operation.  As a kid, I once got an award for riflery at camp, but, ironically, had missed my group’s only visit to the rifle range!  I am concerned by what is happening on this subject in our country, and want to work for change.  I have followed, although hardly closely, the efforts of others within the religious and other communities to make intelligent and meaningful statements against gun violence, some (many?) of which have included significant parts of the specifics that follow.  My purpose here is to set up a comprehensive comparative model to govern this discussion, one based in reality rather than emotion, fact rather than rhetoric, a desire to improve the world rather than pandering to a least common denominator through fear-mongering.

I admit that elements of the following comparison may not be as viable for guns as for cars, but let's at least start with a system that works, and adapt it as needed!  Let the details here be the grounds for meaningful and appropriate debate designed to produce the best possible system, rather than allowing the debate to be pirated and sunk by those who would prefer the discussion not even happen!

By "common sense," can we PLEASE start with a system that isn't completely dysfunctional, but rather works fairly well (NOT perfectly) and apply it intelligently to gun ownership and operation?  Like, let's say, oh... owning and operating an automobile.  And can we please couch our discussion in a clear distinction between those items which MUST happen for meaningful change to be possible; those which SHOULD happen, to make sure the MUSTs can be achieved; and those which COULD happen, if we are serious about protecting the innocent and changing the culture of gun ownership and operation in this country?

And finally, because of my own limitations on this subject, I humbly present this merely as a first draft to START the discussion, and direct its progress.  I expect that some will be challenged or even offended by this effort, others troubled by parts of it.  I ask only that we channel that discomfort not into personal attacks, but into meaningful and useful thought and discussion, designed to take what seems like a good start, and make it even better, so that it can be of the most value to the greatest number of people and our society as a whole.

Let us begin by noting that when it comes to cars, ownership and operation are two separate items.  Owning a gun, like owning a car, must require not merely purchase, but also registration of that purchase with the state, not merely for creating a registry, but in a manner that allows the usage of that item to be tracked, if necessary, if that object is improperly operated. It should also include additional levels of action, parallel to the automobile requirements of regular mechanical and emissions inspection, and regular renewal of registration.  It could also include still other provisions that, when it comes to gun ownership, admittedly will have little advance deterrent value in preventing a determined shooter, but would, as part of a deliberate cultural shift, make clear that owning and operating a gun is a serious undertaking, with significant potential impact on the owner/operator and others, and allow easier and more effective follow-up to transgressions that would have the cumulative effect, over time, of making us all safer, by limiting the ability to commit and desirability of behaviors that hurt and kill others.

Automobiles carry VIN numbers, which are part of the registration, but are also stamped on multiple pieces of the vehicle, and coded to indicate characteristics of that vehicle, so that illegal chop-shopping can, at least theoretically, be tracked, unless the bad guys go to a deliberate extreme length to make it impossible.  So too, gun registration must require both responsible treatment of the weapon at purchase, and a mechanism for following up its usage and upkeep over time. 

Serial numbers are a part of this.   So too are the ability to produce registration documents if stopped and asked (for cause, not as a mechanism for abusing proper ownership), display of a registration mechanism on the weapon itself, which must be removed by the owner upon resale of the weapon (or else as far as the state is concerned, the weapon is still yours and its use is YOUR responsibility!), further identification methods including a registry of barrel groovings, regular renewals, and regular inspection of the viability and safety of the weapon.

In addition, there MUST be mandatory significant penalties, including fines, arrest, and loss of the privilege of ownership, for failure to follow these requirements.  Just as registration of a car must be preceded by inspection of the vehicle for function AND emissions, and proof of sale provided, gun registration must provide a clear path of legal possession, and proof that the owner is taking the steps needed to make sure the gun is kept properly in proper working order while s/he owns it.

Among other (potentially more controversial) elements in registration of guns might be:

1.     establishment of a pro-active national registry computer system, into which sellers must enter all weapon and ammunition sales.  The purpose of this would be to allow such a system to spit out to local law enforcement and registry officials when thresholds of sales behavior indicate that an owner has either a) moved into a position of acting as a de facto resale agent or b) has amassed a volume of materials far beyond what is necessary for hunting or protection (see below for licensing categories).  Failure to properly enter the needed info into the system must be punishable for such an effort to be effective;
2.     development of a system of mandatory insurance for ownership and operation of guns;
3.     requirements for proof of the ability to maintain guns safely in the home or on person of owner;
4.     categorization of weapons by capability and primary function, with specific requirements according to category (handgun, hunting weapon, etc.)

THEN we can talk about licensing usage, which, also patterned on cars, must include proof of accredited training and knowledge, passing written and physical tests, regular renewal and retesting, and multiple levels of user licensing.  It seems reasonable that a different level of knowledge, experience and awareness is needed for operating a hunting rifle in the forest as compared to keeping a hand gun in one’s home for protection.  And therefore, the expectations on these different users should be different, and also the responsibilities.

Only THEN can we reasonably talk about whether there are levels or classes of weapons and accessories that can or should be limited or prohibited.  Part of the problem with the current discussion, besides the lack of such an overarching comprehensive framework, and the obstructionism of the NRA, is that, because it is being driven by the emotion and reality of Sandy Hook, specific bans are far too prominent in the discussion and effort.  A legitimate and carefully defined system of categorizing weapons, accessories, and usages allows for clear definitions, and authentic, accurate distinctions.  Before we can agree to ban assault rifles, we need to have a valid, accepted, useful definition of the classes, one that allows us to determine which weapons fall into that category and which don’t.  And by anchoring it in an overall system of mandatory ownership and usage registration, each individual piece has its specific role reduced,

Right now, we are talking about a specific rifle because it was used in Connecticut, and by comparison (which may or may not be valid) to other, better known weapons from other (read “military”) environments.  Once we have such definitions and distinctions, then we can make statements like “Assault rifles have no place in public usage,” and seek to define the system in ways that their usage will be legitimately limited to those few specific areas in which they ARE necessary and appropriate.  We can seek to ban so-called “cop-killer” bullets, or limit the size of magazines, or put significant restrictions on usage of semi-automatic or automatic weapons (again, only AFTER clearly defining our terms).

The effectiveness of such efforts is predicated on an assumption which may not yet be valid, however.  That assumption is that a legitimate registration and licensing system will be accepted by the majority of owners and users, and seen as valuable.  This system is based on a prevailing culture in which gun owners and operators are willing to be part of the solution, that they find value and protection in such a system for themselves and others, and they are willing to put responsibility of ownership and usage ahead of an absolute right of gun ownership and operation.  It is far from obvious that such a culture exists at the present time.  And while it is easy to recognize and blame an NRA that has become far more a lobbying group for gun manufacturers and sellers than an advocacy group for owners and users, as it still pretends to be, it must also be recognized that, even in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, there has been a failure to put forward such a comprehensive system and compelling case that would persuade these owners to stand up for what is needed and right.

And lt us be clear yet again – this system, indeed NO system, could prevent Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or any of the far too many high profile incidents.  Or even any of the far too frequent and ignored individual tragedies involving guns that true common sense gun violence prevention measures are REALLY designed to reduce and prevent.

What it can, and will, do, is to change the prevailing culture, to make such behaviors less attractive, and less viable, to hold accountable more people whose negligence contributes to such tragedies, so that, moving forward, more people will take better care.  It will make it harder for abuses to occur, not impossible.  It will provide deterrence, in a manner that CANNOT be mistaken for random or vindictive, and therefore be used as propaganda AGAINST improvements.  And, it will do all this by requiring, encouraging, and rewarding responsibility and awareness, at least in the sense of protecting those who act in these positive ways from unnecessary or unjustified limitation on their rights and freedoms.

It seeks to act in accord with the teachings of the value of life found in most religious ethical systems, as contrary to the “value” of our current gun culture, perhaps best exemplified in the teaching of Talmud that “one who takes a single life, it is as if they have destroyed the entire world; but one who saves a single soul, it is as if they have saved the entire world.”  Just because we cannot prevent every soul who is willing to have their own life end in a perceived blaze of glory by taking out as many others as they can on the way to encouraging someone else to pull the trigger on them that they cannot bring themselves to do to themselves, does not remove from us the obligation to take this Talmudic teaching seriously.  For, indeed, the Talmud also teaches that we “are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to simply walk away from it” without doing what we can to make things better.