By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
The commentator Ibn Ezra explains that the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” in this manner: “One may murder by carelessness, by indifference, by the failure to save human life when it is in your power to do so.”
Thirty thousand Americans are murdered by guns every year. The Torah has commanded us not to be indifferent in this matter. And now, in the aftermath of a string of unbearable tragedies, culminating in Newtown, the call for common sense gun reform has become the moral cry of this generation.
That’s why, when extended a special invitation, I joined an interfaith group in Washington recently, for a White House briefing on the issue of gun violence. This is nothing less than the Civil Rights movement of our time. This is a true “Right to Life” initiative, in fact, one that cuts across all lines of race, socioeconomic background and creed.
Ridding our schools, streets and homes of gun violence is a moral issue of the highest order. Gun violence is about teen gangs and angry husbands, it’s about homicide and suicide, it’s about household accidents with make-believe cowboys and it’s about mentally unstable (and undiagnosed or unreported) young adults armed to the teeth. Until Aurora and Newtown, most in suburbia paid little heed to the massacres occurring every day in America’s inner cities. As one red state evangelical minister stated plainly at my conference, “Shame on us.”
Now we are feeling their pain too – for just as God feels the pain of all children equally, so should we weep not only for those innocent victims in Newtown, but for 15-year old Hadiya Pendelton, who was shot a mile from the President’s Chicago residence this week, after seeing him sworn in last week as a majorette in her school band. And we weep with Shirley Chambers the Chicago mother who lost all four of her children to gun violence. All human life is of equal value. Let those four Chambers children now become the fourth child at our Seders this year, along with the Newtown 20 and all the children, everywhere, who have fallen victim to our society’s gun-sanity: they are the “child who cannot ask,” because we allowed them to be killed on our watch.
Yes, Ibn Ezra was right. “Thou Shalt Not Murder” means all of us, all who have allowed human beings to be murdered when we could have done something to stop it. We are guilty of betraying the Sixth Commandment because of our misguided understanding of the Second Amendment. In fact, the Second Amendment is not in any danger of being violated if we take semi-automatic assault weapons, the ones designed for military use, out of the hands of civilians. No one is violating any sacrosanct freedoms if we ban high capacity magazines, like the one used in Aurora. No, in fact, we are defending a sacred freedom: the freedom to stay alive.
The old argument that guns don’t kill people, people do, no longer holds up (if it ever did). Wayne LaPierre’s claim that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun is fatally flawed. Our sources tell us that the world is not full of bad and good people. We are all good and we are all bad. Moses himself was bad at times , driven by anger to disobey God’s command by hitting the rock rather than speaking to it (Numbers 20:12).
It was for that incident that Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. Some might think it a harsh punishment, but the Torah is giving us a clear message here that excessive violence can never be tolerated. If even Moses, our greatest leader, was susceptible to irrational violence, then it’s not about crazy people doing crazy things; it’s about perfectly normal and good people who fly off the handle and do crazy things. The difference is, now we have semi-automatic rifles rather than rods.
Before Newtown there was Northridge – the JCC shooting in 1999. As a Jew, I care about all innocent human beings, but I also know that my own people are especially threatened by a gun running culture that allows, through gun show loopholes, for white supremacists like Buford Furrow Jr. to procure unconscionably lethal weapons without a problem and blast 70 gunshots into the complex with the intent of killing lots of Jewish kids.
Ending this plague is a moral imperative AND a Jewish imperative. It is universal and particularistic. It is the cry of our generation.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford.