‘There are no words.”
Perhaps that statement from Broward County (Florida) Sheriff Scott Israel (believed to be Broward County’s first-ever Jewish sheriff) was the most eloquent response to the latest in a seemingly endless series of school shootings that result in tragedy, the loss of innocent life and the futility of inaction in Congress to lessen the odds of future assaults.
Will anything change after 17 students and adults, including courageous teachers, were slain in a burst of gunfire in Parkland, Fla., this past week? One might well assume that if the murder of 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adults, in the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 did not soften the hearts of those who oppose limits on guns in this country, nothing will.
But noting that words can lead to action and citing the Jewish imperative to preserve life, a group of rabbis in Westchester is working on a rabbinic mandate to only vote for or financially support candidates from either party commited to work to enact laws that would make assault weapons unavailable to the general public and ensure background checks for anyone seeking to acquire any firearm.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, senior rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, told The Jewish Week he is working on “a broad rabbinic statement that invokes Jewish law,” one which he hopes will be endorsed by the Westchester Board of Rabbis and have broad enough appeal to “spark interest” across denominational lines inside the Jewish community and beyond.
The preliminary draft of the proposed rabbinic ruling cites a number of horrific facts about the extensive use of guns in the U.S. resulting in 15,590 deaths in 2017 (not counting deaths by suicide, which is almost twice that number). It notes that homicide rates in America are 20 times those of other wealthy countries, that approximately two children under the age of 12 are killed by guns every day in the U.S., and that the Stoneman Douglas High School killer, with a troubled record, was able to legally purchase an assault rifle when he was 18.
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 15b) states clearly a prohibition against selling or providing weapons to someone who might use them to commit violence. Another passage (Shabbat 54b) asserts that if one is able to protest wrongdoing and does not, that person is liable for the wrongdoing. Or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it more succinctly: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
With those facts about gun violence and teachings of Jewish tradition as a basis, the rabbinic statement seeks to encourage support for political candidates who oppose assault weapons and favor background checks.
“This is a moral issue of public safety and the preservation of life,” Rabbi Tucker explained. “It’s not a partisan issue,” he said, adding: “If halacha [Jewish law] does not have something to say about our national epidemic of gun violence, how can we convince people that halacha has any relevance to them?”
We support the Westchester rabbinic effort and hope that its humane message will spread across the region and country, restoring a sense of dignity and compassion to lawmakers everywhere.