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.