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:  http://jhbelljr.net/2014/06/21/pcusa-divestment/

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:

http://ccarnet.org/about-us/news-and-events/condemning-vote-presbyterian-church-usa-general-assembly/

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:

http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2014/06/19/rabbi-rick-jacobs-bds-letter-to-delegates-at-the-presbyterian-church-usa-general-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...

Sesquicentennial

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.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Response to the Newtown Tragedy -- Based In Logic, Torah, and the Mayan Calendar


Od Avi Chai – Joseph, Newtown, and the Mayans
Sermon for the End of the World – 12/21/12
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

So, we begin this evening with a riddle – what do Torah, the US Constitution, and an obscure Mayan calendric text have in common?  It is more than their convergence on this day – there is actually a message here, a message that virtually wrote itself in preparing for tonight.

I am pretty sure that we are ALL aware of the Mayan text by now – watching TV this morning with my kids, there were a shocking number of brand new commercials, unveiled for today’s “end of the world” prophecy.  I am also willing to bet that, no matter how little serious attention we all paid to this, how little credibility it had in or thinking and planning, many of us woke up this morning, and, even more than usual, asked “Am I still alive?”  And when, once again, we saw that we were, we went along with our normal routine and schedule for the day.  After all, here we are!  Not being Mayans, and not having taken it seriously, while this WAS still a moment of transition, it passed for all of us non-Mayans, relatively unnoticed.

Our Torah text, similarly, pivots on a poignant revelation, question, and transition.  Joseph, no longer able to maintain the charade of being an Egyptian prince before his brothers, reveals his true identity, and follows immediately with the question “Is my father still alive?”  This leads to the reunion, and a major transition for our ancestors, as they left the Promised land, and came to Egypt, in order to survive, starting the chain of events that led, ultimately, to the Exodus.

The Constitution is dragged into our discussion and our thoughts on this Shabbat in the aftermath of the tragic shooting rampage in Newtown, CT last Friday.  Our shock of last Shabbat has turned to profound sadness at the death of 26 innocent people, 20 of them first grade students, to anger at how such a thing could happen, and is hopefully now ready to turn to what can we learn from it and what changes can we make because of it.  Revelation of a tragedy, questions of why and what we can do, and now, the search for transition from the event to a better world.

Guiding that discussion, as it must, is the Second Amendment – so it becomes the text of focus on this issue.  We know it talks about the right to bear arms – but do we know what it REALLY says?  Do we know its interpretive history?  Do we understand how the current “gun culture” came to be what it is?  Can we get past our emotional reactions to a tragic event, and maintain context and perspective to get to appropriate and workable change?  These are the essential questions of the moment; the ones which, despite MANY political efforts at distracting us, need to stay in our view.

So let us begin with what the Second Amendment actually says:  A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  As a Rabbi, I know a little bit about writing, grammar, and syntax.  And I HATE the structure of this sentence from a grammatical perspective.  However, it IS the text we have. 

If the URJ Biennial was being asked to move this amendment today, it seems likely that the first clause would have been preceded by the word “Whereas,” and the second by “therefore, be it resolved that….”  And that is how I have always read it.  The statement about a well regulated militia is a factual truth, being used to explain why the right in the second clause is being established.

And I am not the only one who sees it this way.  As Jeffrey Toobin points out in an excellent item from The New Yorker, posted online, until relatively recently, the prevailing judicial understanding of this amendment had matched mine.  And, as a result, says Toobin: “In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.”

So, how did we get from there to Newtown, to a prevailing gun culture in which, quoting Nicholas Kristof: "More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined?"  Or, as appeared in an article in Monday’s NY Times:  "Children ages 5 to 14 in America are 13 times as likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries, according to David Hemenway, a public health specialist at Harvard who has written an excellent book on gun violence."

The answer, in a word, or more exactly, in 3 letters, is the NRA.  And no, this is NOT going to be a diatribe against the NRA.  Just an attempt to understand the truth about where we are today and why.  Again, quoting Toobin: “Before the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. had been devoted mostly to non-political issues, like gun safety. But a coup d’├ętat at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party. The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. It was an uphill struggle. At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as “a fraud. 
“But the N.R.A. kept pushing…. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a gun-rights enthusiast to the White House. At the same time, Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, became chairman of an important subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he commissioned a report that claimed to find ‘clear—and long lost—proof that the 2nd amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.’ The N.R.A. began commissioning academic studies aimed at proving the same conclusion. An extreme constitutional theory, rejected even by the establishment of the Republican Party, evolved, through brute political force, into the conservative conventional wisdom.”

Ironically, given the oft-invoked conservative embrace of “originalism,” the belief that the proper meaning of the words of the Constitution was fixed at the time of ratification, and their scorn for “judicial activism,” it is hard to find a more significant example of ignoring original intent for the sake of using the judicial branch to create new law than this invented right of the individual to, without limitation, own and operate arms.

I happen to agree with a lot of what the NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre said today, in the organization’s first public statement on the subject, even if I reject his conclusions.  Blaming violent video games and movies, and the media is not inaccurate.  When he said that the students in Newtown might have been better protected had officials at Sandy Hook Elementary been armed, or that putting a police officer in every single school in America might make schools safer, he was expressing a speculative opinion with which I do not agree, but which is hard to refute, since it is cast in the speculative verb “might.”  I also happen to agree with his statement that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

My problem is that we can, and need to do more to keep the bad guys from getting a gun in the first place.  We need to take steps to make everyone more secure, but also need to be careful not to create a “security state,” where we are forced to be comfortable being frisked every time we enter a building.  And my problem is that, bottom line, the NRA is nothing more than an advocacy group, and a lobbying group, for gun makers and sellers, who cloaks itself in the legitimacy of claiming to protect the rights of gun owners, and the 2nd Amendment, as they have helped to redefine it.

My problem is that our current public policy utter fails to recognize the impact of guns – real and theoretical – on our society.  Because I also agree with the following statements of inconsistent reality in our lives today.  All of these were taken off the Internet this week:

1.  “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all take off our shoes at the airport.  31 school shootings since Columbine and no changes in our regulation of guns.”  John Oliver

2.  (Picture of a senior citizen):  I have to show a photo ID at the drug store to buy Sudafed, so the government can track how much I buy, so they know I am not running a drug lab…
(Picture of a smiling young man):  I just bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition for my killing spree over the Internet.  No Id needed, and no way for the authorities to be tipped off that I might be planning something bad…

3.  “If a pre-school child hits another pre-school child with a rock, the solution is NOT to give every pre-school child and teacher a rock!”

Here is the truth – the Second Amendment still has relevance.  However, it is no longer the truth of the framers anymore, as we now HAVE both a national “militia” in the form of the Armed Forces, and local militias – the National Guard – neither of which require their members to own their own weapons.  Neither is it the absolutist vision of the NRA, in which their answer to Newtown is to arm educators and guards, and increase the armed police presence in public schools – in other words – selling more weapons.

As the 3 examples I just gave demonstrate, common sense and experience indicate that some level of governmental regulation Is possible without abridging the rights of individuals to own guns, because with that right must come responsibility.  The best model I can propose is that which goes into owning and operating an automobile.  Drivers must demonstrate proficiency and understanding of the laws of the road to earn first a learner’s permit, and then, after further testing, a license to operate.  In addition, proof of insurance and purchase must be provided to register a car before it can be legally driven.  The car must be regularly inspected to insure it safety on the road.

A gun ownership policy built on this same structure would seem to make sense.  Moreso, it seems appropriate and necessary.  However, let us be clear.  Such a system, by itself, will NOT solve all of our gun related problems.  People still operate vehicles that should not be, or drive without a license, or with willful refusal to obey the laws of the road.  Unless there are also enforcement and penalties that are balanced but perceived as a serious deterrent, such actions will not make a difference.

In addition, just as driver’s licenses exist in different categories for different vehicles, different weapons should require different approvals.  There is a difference between owning a single handgun, for personal security, or a single rifle, for hunting, and being a collector, or operating more lethal weapons.

I can see NO reasonable purpose for semi-automatic or automatic weapons in the hands of the vast majority of citizens.  Likewise, the huge ammunition clips for these weapons, or the purchase of wholesale quantities of any ammunition, or so-called “cop killer” bullets serve no useful public purpose either, and should be banned by law.

As one of my elementary school friends put it this week: “When a neighborhood has a "drug" problem... we go after the drug dealers. Well our neighborhood, the U.S. of A, has a gun problem, and we ought to go after the gun dealers. It's just that simple. Let's start talking about who sold the gun, who manufactured the gun, who made the bullets. Let's name names. Let's start shaming them into a new business. Since that's what it is. It's a business. And it kills.”

I am NOT willing to go that far.  BUT, there have to be limits.  And, if we are being honest, the NRA needs to be part of the discussion, if we hope to get the best possible results.  But, the NRA needs to stop being a lobbying group for the makers and sellers, and do what it claims to do – work for the protection of gun owners and the Second Amendment.  Otherwise, these efforts will fail, and other well-meaning Americans will come to the same conclusion as my friend, Mary.  The makers and sellers need to chose to be part of the solution.

And that brings me to my last point tonight – what can we do ourselves, to help make things better, and to feel like we are working to make a difference.  Because, if we do not, as the public, make clear our revulsion at the frequency of these massacres involving guns, do not make clear that even one Newtown is too many, then nothing will change.  Silence in this case will be interpreted as acceptance of the status quo.  And if there is ANYTHING we have all come to agree upon in the last week, the status quo is NOT acceptable.  When Joe Scarborough, who received the NRA’s highest ratings when he was in Congress, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, equally lauded by the NRA, both respond to what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School by saying that change is needed, then, clearly, change is needed!

But there is more.  We can, and need to continue to console ourselves and our families, and work to make sure that it can never happen in our back yard, or anywhere.  We need to remind our children, and ourselves, that we will be okay and safe, not because we wish it to be true, but because we have worked to make it true.

We need to have the other difficult conversations -- about mental health care in this country, a system gutted during the Reagan years, that still is in need of repair; about the politicization of our basic safety needs; about the glorification of guns and violence in movies, video games, and more; even about how the media handle such tragedies – how many of us know the name of the shooter last week, and how many know the name of a single victim?  These secondary issues must also be addressed as part of any effective solution.

And, we need to find little things to do to feel like we are being part of the solution.  Write letters to the editor, and lobby for common sense gun reform – in the upcoming Maryland legislative session, and from our elected national leaders.

But, and this one is so easy, and even fun, let us reach out to the victims in Connecticut.  After the vacation, the students at SHES will go back to school – in a new building, to limit the impact of being back in the place of such personal trauma and loss.  We can help to make their new, temporary home a little warmer, a place of caring and healing.

Over the break, sit down with family and friends, and make some paper snowflakes.  Send them to:

“Snowflake Project”
Bonnie Marsicano
22 Pine Tree Hill Road
Newtown, CT 06470

and they will become part of the fabric of their new school home.  The mailing information is available on sheets in the lobby, and will be included in this week’s news e-mail.

In this way we can take the poignant revelation of the tragedy in Connecticut, and allow the legitimate questions it raises for us become the catalyst for significant change and improvement – for ourselves, and our world.  We embrace the example of our Torah text, and allow the first days of the new Mayan world to gain dramatic significance.  Win-win.  KYR



 This is the flyer that our members received:

Ways to Help in the Wake of Last Week’s School Shootings

Looking for a way to do SOMETHING to feel like you are helping in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT tragedy?  Here is a simple – and fun – craft project that, in a small way, makes a difference, by sending a healing message of love and support.

“Snowflake Project”

The students at Sandy Hook Elementary School will return to school after the holiday, in a new physical location, to limit the trauma of returning to the scene of the shootings.  To help them be more comfortable in their new setting, the plan is to decorate the walls with snowflakes.  And we can help!

If you have the chance over the break, sit down with family – children, grandchildren, friends – and make some snowflakes!  Use our creative energies to help.  And when you have them done, send them, with a note identifying yourself as part of Temple Solel, to:

Bonnie Marsicano
22 Pine Tree Hill Road
Newtown, CT 06470

And they will be used to brighten the new school space.


If You Want to Make Your Voice Heard

If you want to be a part of the public discussion, or let our elected officials know how we feel, DO IT!  Our silence will only be heard as acceptance of the status quo!

Write a letter to any local paper – The Washington Jewish Week, Bowie Blade-News, Crofton Crier, Annapolis Gazette, Washington Post or others.

Contact our representatives in Annapolis or Washington – your voice will be heard!


In Memory Of:

Let us change the culture of glorification of the perpetrators, by remembering the names of the victims instead:

Charlotte Bacon, 6 
                        Daniel Barden, 7 

Olivia Engel, 6                                Josephine Gay, 7 

Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6 
           Dylan Hockley, 6

Madeleine F. Hsu, 6
                        Catherine V. Hubbard, 6 

Chase Kowalski, 7                          
Jesse Lewis, 6                                    

James Mattioli, 6 
                           Grace McDonnell, 7 

Emilie Parker, 6                              
Jack Pinto, 6

Noah Pozner, 6 
                             Caroline Previdi, 6

Jessica Rekos, 6                             Avielle Richman, 6

Benjamin Wheeler, 6                       Allison N. Wyatt, 6
Rachel Davino, 29

Dawn Hochsprung, 47, principal
Anne Marie Murphy, 52, special education teacher

Lauren Rousseau, 30, teacher
Mary Sherlach, 56, school psychologist 

Victoria Soto, 27, first grade teacher