A question was once posed to two great rabbis: Which is greater? Study or action?
Rabbi Tarfon answered: Action is greater.
And, Rabbi Akiva countered: Study is greater. It is greater because it leads to action.
Given the events at Sandy Hook Elementary the other week, which sparked yet again the debate on gun control in the United States, we as active citizens are called to attention. And, as Jews, we are driven by a Divine and ethical command: “We shall not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors.”. After all, how can we when the tragedy we are discussing are the deaths of little boys and girls, as well as the teachers who loved and cared after them.
My study and reflection on the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary have come out of my own experiences, they emerge from what we know about the current realities of gun violence, and the perspective is rooted in our Jewish tradition. As I have been drawn into study on the matter of gun violence in our communities, I find myself drawn to Rabbi Akiva’s teaching. Yes, we should study, and think, and push our conceptual understanding. Then, we do our best when we use what we have learned to act–to act with hearts overflowing in mercy, love, compassion, and justice.
When I think of the major, watershed historical moments that have taken place in my lifetime, I usually learned about them by watching them on TV. The tragedy at Columbine High School was no exception. I watched what happened at Columbine from a seat in my junior-year homeroom classroom in Houston, Texas. I was 1,000 miles from that high school; still, I have chilling memories from that day.
This was April, 1999 in diverse, urban Houston. I was in my homeroom classroom at the M.B. Lamar Senior High School. My homeroom was a chemistry classroom. We sat at broad tables, all of us like a ’90s version of The Breakfast Club–the nerds and the jocks together, the diligent students and the girls who flipped their hair, there were also the grunge guys with equally long hair, wearing baggy, Jinco jeans, and yes, my high school had rednecks. That day, every eye and ear was fixated on the news on the television. The news reports were broadcasting Columbine students, who they reached on cell phones, getting to tell them about the horrors they were seeing in their school. These students had gotten out of the building, and no one was certain what was going on. People were trying to get into the hallways, but no one could where they might encounter danger.
As all of that was going on, the vice principals in my building had come around to the classrooms; we were not to go anywhere, not even to the bathroom. Teachers were to hold us in our homerooms until further notice. Police officers were going through our building, securing it.
At some point, during some lull in the media, or when we finally were tiring of watching the news, my teacher asked the class, “How many of you have seen guns on our campus? How many of you know someone who has brought a gun to class?”
2/3rd’s of the class raised their hands. Anyone with their hands up held their eyes down. This was the farthest thing from a joke. Those with their hands raised did so in shame, guilt, and fear. It still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
I felt that same feeling the other week when I learned about the shooting in Newtown. Given any security measure a community puts in place, the reality is that guns are easily available to purchasers. Someone who wants a gun can get one. I read about gun tragedies so often that, from time to time, they feel as normal and typical as some of the standard advertisements situated on the same daily pages.
Newtown, the shooting in Aurora, or the one in Tucson–these are far from typical, and they go to show that any act of gun violence should be far from normal. Flipping through last Thursday’s Boston Globe, when the paper was reporting on the first steps that the Obama administration was taking in regard to gun control, I was struck by the number of other reports on recent gun violence. In Kentucky, a man shot his girlfriend and two innocent bystanders. In St. Louis, a college student was charged for allegedly shooting his financial aid officer. In Pittsburgh, a seven-year-old boy had been accidentally shot outside of a gun store. Why does this feel like the typical daily report?
Certainly, we must recognize editorial discretion. Though a look at statistics confirm what our media outlets report. In the last year approximately 344,000 individuals have been assaulted, injured, or killed with a gun. 344,000. Consider this for perspective: our city has a population of approximately 85,000.
Assault weapons, hand guns, hollow-point bullets, extended magazines — I cannot imagine standing up for an off-kilter want to own things like that when we are talking about tragedies like the ones we have recently encountered. I don’t know about you, but Newtown has left the teachings of our tradition actively ringing in my ears: “When one is killed, it is as if the whole world has been destroyed.”
Over a brief vacation that I took in December, I visited some family and friends in Houston. One afternoon, we were having lunch with some family friends who live in a county about an hour outside of town. These are real Texans. They are so Texan, that’s their dog’s name. As we had lunch together, we got into discussing the events at Newtown. The husband of the couple is a hunter, and I was nervous about what his perspective might be. As we got into it he said, “There is just no reason for someone to own guns like that guy had. Assault weapons, AR-whatevers: No thank you. I hunt, and when I do, I take my shotgun and three shells with me. That is all I have ever needed, and it’s all I ever will need. And, I keep my gun in a safe in one room, and I keep the shells locked up in another place entirely.” My friend made it clear that he was all in favor of sensible gun control measures, and from his perspective, the only reason he had a gun was for recreational hunting. “I’m leaving the security of my property to security professionals,” he told me.
My friend’s voice is one that I have heard elsewhere in the conversation currently in the public square, mixed in with those who say that we can pry guns out of their cold, dead hands, or those who fiercely believe we should be a nation free of firearms. The current debate is cacophonous, and so is our tradition on this matter. Still, I believe that among our teachings stands a viewpoint that supports sensible action against gun violence.
That viewpoint can be found in our pre-immanent Jewish legal code known, the Shulkhan Aruch. Written in the 16th Century, its author, Rabbi Joseph Caro, decreed that an individual could keep a dangerous animal on his property to protect him from robbers and others who would do harm. Yet, the owner was not allowed to let the animal loose all of the time. In a normal city, you were instructed to keep the dog tied up on a metal chain all day. “While a barking dog can deter robbers, the liability of letting the dog go free is too much since we don’t know whom the dog might attack.” Now if one lived on the outskirts of town, there were looser restrictions. In that situation, one was permitted to let them roam at night. Still, by day, you had to keep the dangerous dog tied up.
The application of this ruling to gun control is apparent. From this legal construction out of our Jewish tradition we learn a critical lesson, to quote my close friend, Rabbi Marc Katz:
“When danger is not at its most acute, societal accountability trumps personal protection.”
I return to the debate at which I began between Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva. Which is more important: study or action? Akiva ruled that we are to study, and then we are to act. We do so because to study grounds our actions. When we look at all the reports, all the accounts, all the statistics, all the perspectives–yes, it is exhausting–but we stand on firm ground for our convictions for what is right and just in the world.
This coming Monday we will commemorate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere,” he preached. Inertia is no long acceptable. We have been called to action as concerned citizens. I believe that given all we have been through, and all that we know about gun violence, we can no longer stand idly by.
On February 4, the Religious Action Center, our Reform Movement’s office in Washington, is organizing a national call-in day to encourage our elected officials to swiftly push for sensible gun control measures. We need to fix background checks, to close the gun show loophole, to close the terror loophole, to renew the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to oppose any efforts to weaken states’ concealed handgun laws. I will be taking part in this day; I hope you will join me.
Since the shootings at Newtown, I have had many conversations with members of our community. At times, there have been tears over this. Tragedies such as this do not have to happen. We can do so much better. Shortly after the shooting, I joined other clergy from Newton congregations and stood with Mayor Setti Warren and other city officials at a vigil. In my closing prayer, I expressed my desire for gatherings such as those to no longer be needed. May that day come speedily and may that day come easily. May we hear the clear call to action, may we then act, and thereby take comfort in knowing that we have done well to make our world more just.
 Kiddushin 40b.
 Leviticus 19:16.
 Choshen Mishpat 409:3.