"On the Occasion of the Murders of Schoolchildren"
Rabbi Jack Moline
December 18, 2012
To my dear friends, my dear congregants.
I send you this column in lieu of a sermon, largely because I know that children will be present on Saturday morning. We will talk about the tragedy – I have asked Alan Gura, our congregant who argued the landmark Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment – to have a public conversation with me in the place of Torah study on Shabbat morning. But I do not expect that conversation to speak to matters of the heart, even if we hope to address the heart of the matter.
Rabbi Shaul Praver of Newtown was correct when he said there was no theological justification to be offered here. These deaths were unjustifiable. Everything about them is tragic, including the sad story of the young man who succumbed to the urgings of the evil impulse, for whatever reasons.
You know that I have a particular interest and involvement with public policy. It should come as no surprise to you that I have long been in favor of stricter gun control measures, and that I am not particularly picky about where we start – assault weapons, ammunition identification, licensing, etc. I found Gov. McDonnell's willingness to "discuss" arming teachers to be reprehensible; no one will be safer because a loaded gun, accessible and usable in an emergency, is present in a classroom.
But I am also well aware that the Bill of Rights grants our citizens the right to bear arms, and no responsible advocate can ignore the role that self-protection plays in the law, lore and culture of America.
I am also a supporter of public and private resources for those who struggle with mental and emotional challenges. We should not forget that such services have a checkered history in our country. For far too long, "mental patients" were consigned to the kinds of facilities depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. One such facility is the Southbury Training School in Southbury, CT. Mostly it was a residential facility for people who were mentally compromised – "retarded" – though it also had wards for residential psychiatric patients. In 1986, admissions were closed as part of the Reagan administration's reimagining of mental health treatment in our country. In 1997, the courts prohibited Southbury from taking in any new patients. Some 750 older adults still live there, grandfathered by the charter. It is worth noting that President Reagan proposed out-patient clinics and respite care for the deinstitutionalized adults and children, but that Congress did not fund that half of the proposal.
It is also worth wondering what kinds of reforms might have transformed the facility into an enlightened temporary or permanent home for people tormented by mental illness. Southbury Training School is about twenty minutes from Newtown.
Speculations aside, this much is true: until Adam Lanza shot his mother, nothing he did was illegal. The guns his mother owned were legally purchased, properly stored and used in supervised sporting environments. In fact, at least one gun dealer in Danbury, the next town over, reported that he refused to sell a gun to Adam that week. Even if the rifle used to murder the children had remained under the assault weapons ban, the automatic pistols he carried would have remained just as legal and just as lethal.
And health care wish lists aside, this much is true: Adam Lanza was receiving regular expert care from a family that provided the resources they believed they needed for his treatment.
And security concerns aside, this much is true: this young murderer entered a secure school by shooting out the glass in the security doors, not by taking advantage of laxity or familiarity.
So in spite of my inclinations and my concerns about public policy, there is no proposal being offered for gun control, mental health treatment or security that would have prevented this tragedy if Adam Lanza was bent on mayhem and murder. I am not going to refrain from participating in efforts to reconsider the status quo in any of those matters, but neither will I – nor should you – pretend that political battles for or against reform could have, would have or even might have changed the outcome. Nancy Lanza did not believe her son to be capable of the acts he committed.
So are we to throw up our hands and consider the deaths of these 26 sacred souls to be simply forfeit to the random uncertainties of life? Absolutely not. As a country, as a society and as individuals we have soul-searching to do, because these children, like the victims at the Michigan gurdwara, the Colorado movie theater, the Ft. Hood administrative center and the streets of our city and others are not acceptable losses in our efforts to build a beloved community and an admirable society.
As President Obama said, certain things have to change. The first among them is in our hearts. We must listen with compassion to those who find value in the status quo. We must listen with compassion to those who demand change in the status quo. But the status quo is far from static; it is a moving target, to use an unfortunate metaphor. Neglect of gun laws, mental health care and intelligent safety concerns has created an environment in which incremental complexities have been addressed by inadequate and outdated methodologies.
As a Jewish community we have contributions to make to these discussions. I am not the first to suggest them, but I am impressed again that the wisdom of Jewish tradition is not applicable just to Jews.
First of all is the concept if tohar haneshek, "purity of arms," that is impressed on every teenager in Israel as they enter military service. Israelis are surrounded by automatic weapons, yet criminal gun violence, especially by private citizens, is rare. Why? Because rather than glorifying firearms as an expression of personal power, Israelis are taught that a gun of any kind is defensible only if used appropriately. The role of guns in American society, encouraged by political, entertainment and digital advocates, deemphasizes the Constitutional concerns and relegates weapons of death to toys, the equivalents of basketballs and tennis racquets, employed by cartoon characters who recover in time for their next action flick or game level. In America, guns are sacred, but they are not tohar, clean, pure, uncontaminated. A reorientation of attitudes toward firearms is a necessary prelude to legislation.
Don't think we can do it? No one thought we could wean America off of cigarettes, either. We may not complete the task, but we must not refrain from it.
Second of all is the wisdom of Jewish law concerning human responsibility. The great blessing of America is that we affirm the rights of all people – ethical norms like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which are unalienable, and legal norms which are (in spite of our belief otherwise) legislated by Constitutional amendment. But in Jewish law, rights are a by-product of people meeting their obligations to a just society.
To be sure, the responsibilities of Jewish law do not produce all of the rights we enjoy as Americans, which is why openness to America is important to faithful Jews. But equally true, Americans misunderstand "rights" to mean "unlimited entitlements." There are times that the Jewish demand to set aside personal benefit for the sake of higher principles is a necessary contribution to deliberations in our country.
These discussions ought to take place surrounding gun ownership, mental health care and security. And, without going into detail, the additional wisdom of Jewish law and tradition on private and public safety, human dignity and its limits, and reasonable expectations of government should be part of mix. We all have our opinions of what we prefer politically; the value added we bring as Jews is a perspective that is our legacy.
And while there is much room for differing opinions in our rich tradition, it is worth knowing as a Jew when your political opinions exist close to or outside the margins of Jewish thought. And if that's the case, then you'll have to come to terms with the question of just how "Jewish" your beliefs are.
I am sad, angry and determined by the deaths of these innocent children. I see them in the faces of the kids in our religious school, in our pre-school and in our neighborhood. I feel in my heart the panic of every parent as he or she considers even the remote possibility that such horror could be visited on our own precious children.
I am resolved not to be controlled by those feelings, because the worst way to make rules and laws is in an attempt to revise the past. We must cry for a while and hold our loved ones close. And then, when the frantic beat of our hearts is no longer pounding in our ears, we must take a sober look at how to make this society a better, safer and freer place to live.
And then we must have the courage to act.