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Why I am a Rabbi against Gun Violence (and Pro-Skydiving!)

04/20/2016 04:55:35 PM


January 29th, 2016
19 Shevat 5776

Dear Friends,

A new group called Rabbis Against Gun Violence has taken form over the last few weeks. Originally started after the terrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, the group merged and shifted and relaunched recently as a project/affiliate of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign (, which traces its name from Torah, which states that we should not stand idly by while the blood of our neighbor is being shed. The group now has almost 900 Rabbisfrom every denomination, and I am one of them. 

Clearly, gun violence is a problem in the U.S.
Seemingly every day there are news stories of young children accidentally killing their siblings after finding their parents weapons. We also hear about those who fire at people in religious institutions, workplaces, malls, movie theaters, and schools, either as a form of religious terrorism or as a result of mental illness (or both). After all of these terrible tragedies, politicians declare that it's a time for prayer and healing and a time to address mental illness in our country.

As a rabbi, I have to say, I'm sick of politicians offering their prayers and then ignoring their responsibility to improve the situation. Prayer is important and there is certainly a time and a place for it. Prayer won't bring back the dead, and prayer won't prevent the next tragedy. 

I read a sobering statistic recently that said that over the last 40-50 years, there have been more gun deaths in the US than fatalities in ALL American wars since the beginning of our country. For those wondering, about a third of those deaths are suicides, and the rest are homicides, accidental or otherwise. Almost 1.5 million people have died from gun violence in the U.S. over the last 40-50 years. 

Other countries have handled gun violence differently than ours.
For example, years ago I heard that in Israel the army discovered that too many of their own soldiers were committing suicide with their weapons once they went home at night. They they mandated that the weapons be left on base at night and the suicide rate went down significantly.

What does Rabbis Against Gun Violence want to do?
They'd like Rabbis to help pressure elected officials and gun manufacturers to find answers to these problems, including increased access and treatment of mental illness. They'd like to force gun manufacturers to make smarter guns with fingerprint identification and safety locks so that kids can't accidentally fire them. They'd like to hold gun manufacturers accountable for allowing guns to be sold illegally, or without proper background checks. When guns used in violent crimes are traced back to the stores they were purchased in, a disproportionate number come from a small number of stores that push the boundaries and violate best ethical (and sometimes legal) practices. One of those stores is here in Memphis.

Why did I sign on to this campaign?

I will admit that I've never fired a real weapon. Someday I'll visit a gun range and learn how it's done. As a vegetarian, I can't personally stomach the idea of ending the life of any animal, even though I recognize that there are justifiable reasons for eating animals, and there are even environmental reasons to allow hunting so as to properly limit animal overcrowding (when I lived in New Jersey hunting season was extended as the deer population had increased significantly, which caused problems for homeowners and those driving on highways). Out of necessity, I do eat fish and I am aware that their lives need to end in order for me to eat them. I'm therefore not passing judgment on those who hunt for sport, even though it's not something i feel personally called to do. 

That being said, I am against needless suffering and death. That so many innocent people die in gun violence in the U.S. is a stain on the moral fiber of our country. I would like people who are responsible gun owners to continue to have the opportunity to live as they wish. I've met many such gun owners here in Memphis. I'm also aware that those I've spoken with are all in favor of sensible gun reforms that would make the world safer for everyone. 

I wonder why it is that drivers licenses are sometimes harder to come by than weapons? Why is there a mandatory 60-day waiting period to get divorced in TN and only a 3-day waiting period to acquire a weapon? Why do many of our legislators say that gun violence is a mental illness problem and then vote against legislation that would expand access to mental health treatment?

All this being said, Rabbis Against Gun Violence is asking its members to picket outside gun stores, and that I find unnecessary. From an organizing perspective, I believe it'd make much more sense to meet with local legislators, police officers, gun owners, and even the owners of the store to see if there were ways of working together to address the situation. Am I personally willing to do that work? I don't honestly know. Many rabbis have personal causes they engage in - is this more important than hunger, homelessness, poverty, environmental issues, etc.? Truth is, that question is irrelevant - it's all important and as we all know, our time is finite. Is that a rabbinic and personal cop-out or a recognition that I can't be involved in everything (or both)? We rabbis struggle with these issues just like each of you.

I'd be grateful to hear your thoughts about what I've written. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me on any of this. My opinion is only my opinion. I am, however, arguing for nuance and an understanding that the world is complicated, and responsible people should be allowed to have guns while we must do more to prevent suffering and tragedy. 

Seems to me that our political system is not designed to meet the needs and values of the vast majority of our country who wish to pursue common-sense legislation on this and many other areas. I'm certainly not ever going to tell you who to vote for. 

I also believe that we need to look not just at the deaths themselves, but also at what leads people to think that shooting others is ever a proper solution (other than legitimate self-defense)? Have we lost our reverence for life? Have guns proliferated so much that so many forget that they are not toys and that what happens in video games and movies isn't real? 

I do hope and pray for a time when messages and sermons like these are no longer necessary, when we have figured out how to be the beacon of hope and democracy we claim to be, and a country and a world where all can dwell in peace. May that time come soon!

Thanks to all of you who reached out and commented on my recent facebook post about my mom's yahrtzeit this week. As the article I posted attests, she was in fact a remarkable person....and everything you don't like about me is her fault! Just kidding (sort of).

I'm also intrigued by how many people have watched the video of me skydiving. What does it say about me that my jumping out of a plane is the most watched and commented thing I've posted on facebook in many years? I doubt I could get 3,000 views of a Yom Kippur sermon but jumping out of a plane everyone wants to see! 

I am aware that many of you thought I was crazy for doing it. I'm also aware that many of you told me you could never do it yourselves and yet you were proud of me for having the courage to do something I'd wanted to do for so long. Truth is, anyone over 18 can do it, so long as you meet the weight limit (about 250 pounds). The messages we tell ourselves are incredibly important. So many of us tell ourselves we can't do the things we want. As a student of the personal growth movement, I am grateful to have learned over the years with those who teach about overcoming our own personal limitations and striving for lives of excellence. Truth is, if there's a cause that speaks to me the most, helping people overcome their limitations and doing the hard, personal transformation required for growth is it. I don't believe we have to settle for good enough. I believe that life is meant to be an incredible journey of constant growth and self-realization and celebration. (As an important aside, how many of you would be interested in adult education classes and other opportunities to learn life/transformation strategies fromJewish wisdom and/or the personal growth movement?) And in case you're wondering, yes, I was nervous - I summoned my courage and did it anyway, and it was an incredible experience. I wonder what I'll do from my bucket list next....

What's on your bucket list? Anything I or we at the shul can help you accomplish? And what messages are you telling yourself about what you can and can't do? May we all learn to identify those negative messages and learn to minimize and heal them so that we can have the lives we desire. May it be so for each of us - that we and the world continue to value the preciousness and sanctity of all life, including and especially our own and that of our family and community. 

Please note that I'll be away Sunday to Friday for another rabbi conference, this time in Baltimore. The previous conference was organized by the Renewal movement, while this next conference is organized by CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, as part of their Rabbis Without Borders program, of which I am an alum. They are the best of the best at helping rabbis strategize about where the Jewish world is going and how rabbis can help bring Jewish wisdom to today's pressing problems. I am looking forward to a few days of learning, and then some time with my 3 siblings, as well as my sister-in-law-to-be, who all live in the Baltimore/DC area. Have no fear, I'll be back for Shabbat. I'll be reachable by phone or email in case of emergency - otherwise, please be patient and i'll respond to everything else when i return.

Speaking of Shabbat, tomorrow morning we'll have a special Starbucks Shabbat with Abraham Silver, the JCC Scholar-in-Residence. He'll be speaking about Jewish Identity in the Jewish State, and from those who've attended his other talks, I'm told he's a fabulous speaker. Please join us tomorrow at 9 am for his talk.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ilan

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780