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Blasphemy in the Camp

05/04/2023 05:19:32 PM


My message from this week: Many members of our community were deeply affected by the mulitple shooting that took place in a Midtown Atlanta medical office this week. Some were friends of the woman who was murdered. Others went into lockdown in nearby buildings, or were patients of one of the medical practices in that building, and, but for the grace of God, might have been there that day. I generally do not comment on these events. They are so common in American society that I would have to post almost every day. A certain numbness sets it. I had hardly noticed the story of the man in Texas who shot his five neighbors. Statistics can be manipulated, but even if one looks only at attacks in the U.S. with four or more victims, ruling out underlying criminal activity (like gang violence) you come up with over 190 attacks this year, with over 1000 victims. Can we do better? What wisdom does our Jewish tradition have to offer?
These mass shootings generally have two ingredients- people who are “on the outside,” animated by irrational hate or mental instability, and unrestricted access to deadly weapons. Depending on one’s political bent, one might try to focus on one and ignore the other. There is a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91) of a king who had an orchard. He appointed two guards, one blind, the other unable to walk. Neither could attain the fruit on his own. The blind man put the lame man on his shoulders, and they pilfered the finest fruit. When the king found his fruit gone, he came to accuse the guards. The blind guard denied responsibility: “how can I be to blame? I cannot even see the fruit.” The other protested that due to his physical disability, he could not possibly have reached the fruit to take it. The king saw through their ruse, and had the two judged together, recognizing their joined responsibility. Similarly, even if it takes two factors combined, we cannot afford to ignore either, when innocent lives are at stake.
One factor is those on the outside. Our Torah portion this week, Emor, tells the story of a man with an Egyptian father and Jewish mother. He goes out in the camp, becomes involved in an altercation, and curses God. Rashi, citing an early midrash, notes that his behavior did not come out of nowhere. He was distressed because he was told that he had no place in the Israelite community. The Israelites are criticized for not finding a place for him within the camp. The motivation, while explaining his action, did not excuse it, and he suffered the penalty for blasphemy which was death by stoning. Our sages teach that there is no greater blasphemy than murder- since each human is created in God’s image, the wanton taking of a human life is the ultimate rejection of God.
There is an epidemic of people in American society who are “on the outside.” This may be due to some combination of isolation, radicalization, or mental illness. While most people suffering from mental illness are a risk to no-one except possibly themselves, the fact that millions of people cannot access treatment means that even a miniscule percent can do great harm. While some details are not yet available, it seems that the perpetrator yesterday, a veteran of the US uniformed services, was struggling with addiction and other issues, after having received inadequate care from the Veteran’s Administration. The perpetrator's distress does not excuse his actions, but the story from Emor reminds us that a society that does not look after its broken, its estranged, its distressed, will live out the consequences.
The other factor is unrestricted availability of guns. I’ve written many times on the Jewish view on guns and weapons, and our ethical imperative has not changed. Deuteronomy 22:8 reads: “When you build a new home, make a parapet around the roof, and do not put blood in your home, lest someone fall from it.” The Talmud, Bava Kama 15b, expands on that prohibitions to include other kinds of dangerous objects, like a vicious dog or a rickety ladder. Rabbi Isserles, in his comments on the Shulchan Aruch, HM 409:3, notes that “There are those who say that since we are amongst the nations, all is permitted, and go see what people do. However, it seems that if it is a vicious dog, that we are afraid may hurt people, that it is forbidden to raise it, unless it is tied with iron chains.” Even the most dangerous things may have a place in an ethical society, but come with great responsibility. The Torah allows for a parapet, but it must have railing. You might have need for a vicious dog, but it must be restrained. Maimonides (Laws of Murderers 12, and Laws of Idolatry 9) goes further and offers explicit restrictions on selling weapons to those who might use them in harmful ways. One who gives a weapon to someone who is at risk of harming others shares in the guilt of that person’s crimes.
I recently returned from Israel, where the risk of terror attack is ever-present (indeed, an attack took place outside of a store I frequent at the Ben Yehudah market in Jerusalem, just days after I was there). Some attacks are indeed foiled by “a good guy with a gun.” And yet, Israel does not have the same horrific death toll from mass shootings that we have here. The difference is that Israel has put limits in place as to who may have what type of gun. Israeli authorities assesses the needs and potential risks of each person who requests a permit, and deny 40% of requests. Israel demands a high level of responsibility from those who do receive one. Of course, there is a key difference between the two countries. Israel has made a decision to make gun ownership a privilege. In contrast, American society sees gun ownership as a right, and as a result we will likely never see the Israeli system implemented here. Nevertheless, American government does not see rights as absolute. It frequently pairs even our most cherished rights with corresponding responsibilities. The right to free speech is limited, and the right to privacy is certainly under attack. Jewish ethics demands that there is no greater call to responsibility than in matters of life and death.
I have no illusion that this latest incident will lead to change. If the murders of dozens of school children have not moved us, then the cries of two children mourning their mother will surely be the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. Nevertheless, the inaction of some has consequences for all. As long as we continue to ignore those who are on the outside, and we walk the path of rights without responsibilities, we will continue to witness the daily blasphemy of murder.
Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784