Friday, January 21, 2011

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor: "Violence in Our World"

Violence in Our World

January 21st, 2011 - Temple Beth El - Richmond, VA

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


I receive questions from students in our Religious School and then visit the classes to answer them and usually receive more questions in return. A recent and timely question was: Why is there so much violence in the Torah? I haven't yet returned to answer that one yet, but in light of the horrendous article on the front page of Wednesday's Time-Dispatch, the murderous assault in Tucson, Arizona and the intention of the governor to further extend the permissibility of guns into parks, I want to briefly share a few thoughts.


The Torah's violence always bothered me. But because the Torah's text is "sanitized," namely there is very little description of blood and gore, you don't really have to deal with it until Yam Suf and the vivid description of Pharaoh's drowning and the Israelite's rejoicing.  I have long felt the incongruity between what we sing upon returning the Torah to the Ark – "V'chol Netivoteha Shalom" – "And all its paths, i.e. of Torah, are peace" – and the violent passages in its text. I came to terms with these sections when I studied the greater context of establishing the Jewish people amongst warring nations. In antiquity as well as now it is hard to be a pacifist, especially in that part of the world. You won't live long. Violence doesn't justify violence, but you only have two cheeks to turn before you're dead. Living is hard. Surviving is harder.


Yet the Rabbinic view that will create the prayer we chant when returning the Torah does not accept violence or the justification for violence as the modus operandi or modus vivendi of the world. The Rabbis look to the opening chapters of the Torah, the creation of a beautiful and pristine world prior to Adam and Eve's disobedience and see in it the paradigm for human existence, par excellance.  In that scenario humans do not hurt each other, nor do they hurt the animal kingdom. They are only permitted to eat fruits and vegetables. You need barely to disturb even the plant kingdom. While some might dismiss these chapters as a utopian delusion, Judaism adopts it as the ultimate vision of human existence. Later Jewish writings develop the idea that hurting a human being, never mind killing them, injures God as well, for if 'He" is our 'Father' – Avinu Malkaynu – then God Himself goes into mourning for each of His children. In a sense, God says Kaddish with us. When the Rabbis dream about the ultimate end of days, there is no physical bounty to be received, rather a world that is "kulo Shabbat" – an existence that is eternally Shabbat – that the spirit is free, harmonious, spiritually beautiful, and completely at peace. I digress: Perhaps the concept of Shabbat has been borrowed from us and has such power because Shabbat observance is the ultimate elixir for the human condition. The Rabbis equate a true Shabbat experience with the taste of the world to come, the age of, era of the Messiah. Until violence is banished from human existence, the Messiah, ipso fact, has not come. It is that for which we long and pray for.


This vision of how we are supposed to be drives Judaism and our vision of society. We do balance two opposing matters – that is why God gave us two hands. On one hand, we realize that the world is a dangerous place. No people better than we knows the ceaseless attempts by different peoples from antiquity to the present moment, that has tried and continues to exterminate, annihilate and eradicate us from the earth. We are not deaf, dumb or blind. For that reason Israeli boys and girls finish 12th grade and go to Tzahal, the army. They will be on active reserves for the best years of their lives. Israel's military reputation is well deserved. We also know to be vigilant against those who espouse our harm. We understand violence and its threat. Yet there always is "on the other hand." And it balances our vision for society here and now. Our Judaism teaches me that here in America we don't bring guns to shul, that we don't need guns under every pillow and on our waists. It is different in Israel because of terrorist threats, and even there neither I nor Israelis were comfortable with what was and is a necessity. I am not a pacifist who would stand with bound hands while some would destroy me. But I also read the statistics that indicate how few people are saved by the plethora of guns that exist in the United States, and how many are killed by the plethora of weapons from the unregulated sale of guns to every and any loose bolt, nut and screw and criminal who can ante up the cash and avoid a background check. No gun saved the people in Arizona. It only killed and maimed them. No guns save the people on Church Hill, South Richmond or any other place. Guns only kill them. There are only a few instances that are the exceptions to the rule, yet do not disprove it.


I repudiate the attitudes and idea that appeared in last Wednesday's Times-Dispatch article and I call for legislation that will tighten and not loosen gun control. I call upon the media to cease its glorification on TV, Cable and in the movies. We will not be safer, not securer, not sheltered from harm. For those who wish to look at the Constitution and to return to the wishes of the founding fathers, I suggest that they check the date of the document. The founding fathers do not live in our age. They could not have imagined the mischief and mayhem proliferated in our cities and suburbs, in schools and universities by a veritably uncontrolled torrent of weapons of every size and caliber. If they could have, if they could have dreamed our nightmare, I think that they might have written it differently. They might have believed in the ultimate goodness of man. For us it is a question and a struggle. Weapons need to be tightly controlled; tightly regulated and even more tightly restricted. We need more protection, and not less. I don't expect all listeners or readers of these words to agree. We will argue and debate, but with words. I fear for the ones who do it with bullets.


In their infinite wisdom, the composers of our liturgy, in ages long ago, closed the most important prayers with pleas for peace: so ends every Amidah in the year; so end most of the Kaddishes, shalem, yatom and d'rabbanan: that as the heavens seemingly move harmoniously, peacefully with out injuring one another – we know that that is poetry, but it moves our souls, so too, should all of us, all of God's creatures live in shalom, in peace.


Shabbat shalom.



Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Friday, January 14, 2011



Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia

January 14, 2011


After the torrents of words in the media and the President's eloquent words the other night, it seems that there is little left to add. The media commentators, needing to fill up endless hours of air-time, will recycle and regurgitate much of what already has been said. Yet there are a few pieces of Jewish teaching and a few reflections upon this tragedy in which six were murdered and another twelve were wounded, others besides Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffords. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, because the great piece, "The Song of the Sea" is the core part of the Torah portion, and the prophetess Deborah's song is the core piece of the Haftarah. The joy engendered by both songs is mitigated this Shabbat, is tempered and abated, by the senseless tragedies as well as the death of the world renown Debbie Friedman, who twice performed here on our bemah in concerts arranged by my wife. Debbie, a woman with medical issues, died from pneumonia, contracted during her participation in the Jewish learning program called Limmud, which took place in England. Both events, vastly different but united in death, diminish our joy.


Debbie Friedman brought joy, contemplation, innovation and elation into so many Jewish hearts through her music and her soul. I remember her here on our bemah, not quite sure where she was, she began singing "West Virginia" until someone corrected her and said that she was in Virginia and not West Virginia. That was a scene. But then, in vintage style, she opened her heart and her mouth and had us both deeply meditating and later dancing in the aisles. While a great deal of her music was not meant for liturgical purposes, the music and its purpose inspired myriads of the next generation of song writers and singers, including our son Menachem, to create vibrant, searching and uplifting music for our tefillot as well as our Shabbat dinner tables. In recent times she joined the faculty at HUC-JIR in New York City, to bring the influence of her work and her life upon the current students. Her memory and her contributions to Judaism will long endure.


There is no simple, rational or sane explanation for the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. There never is for such a calamity.


We may blame the sellers of guns who must have looked into his eyes and seen someone who should not have a gun in his hand and sold it to him never the less.


We may blame the lack of laws regulating gun sales, or the procedures or lack thereof for background checks. It seems to me that if he wanted bad enough, he could always get a gun from somewhere.


We may blame the culture of violence that is projected through every media imaginable and on every single device. I, too, enjoy a good "James Bond," NCIS, and CIS. But there comes a point that the violence is beyond gratuitous. It creates an ambience, an attitude, a milieu, an expectation. I don't really know why that when I am in Israel, where so many of the general population have been in the military, when they bring their guns home with them on leave, when they bring them to synagogue and put them under their seats, and learn how to shoot guns and do, where violence is frequent in wars, in suicide bombings, in Hamas bombardment of the South and Hezbollah in the 2006 war in the North, that you do not feel or experience such a culture as we have here. Believe me, it is not a tame world over there.

            Why are we so violent?

            Why do we have some much road rage?

            Why do we have so many assassinations or JFK, RFK, and poignantly, MLK?

I am sure that this tragedy will not change our culture, but it must give us pause to ponder. Our values are stacked up against money makers, global trade and other vested interests. But where and when will sanity prevail?

When will TV moguls, cable tycoons, and manufacturer magnates decide to present a different image to youth and adult, and join in shaping a different world?

Is this why God created us, so that we can bludgeon and shoot, maim and batter each other, on the streets, in our homes, in the shopping malls?

It doesn't matter if the screens are large or small.

            Who will stop this?

            When will this carnage end?


We may also blame the disgustingly low level of discourse. Unfortunately the abuse and misuse and exploitation of language in the world is rampant. Sarah Palin's reference to "blood libel" just takes the cake. In Judaism, usually said with a Yiddish intonation, there is a term called "lashon ha-rah" which is said "loshon hur-rah" meaning gossip. But in truth, the Hebrew "lashon" means tongue and "rah" means evil, thus yielding "evil speaking." That is what we have had in this country. It isn't gossip, which can be bad enough, but rather how we say –not only - what we say. It is helpful that the Times-Dispatch has the new "truth-o-meter" and follows up politicians' statements to see how truthful they are, high, low and not-at-all. But it is beyond that.

            Is there venom in their voice?

            Is there vindictiveness in their words?

            Is there malice in their hearts?

            Is their meanness on their tongue?

            Is there malevolence in their speech?

Are we arguing ideas and concepts, discussing directions and designs or are we slinging mud, shooting arrows, darts and bullets into crosshairs?


Are people running for prestige or power or to serve our citizenry and the greater good of society?


Is there not enough suffering to heal, pain to reduce, hunger to cure, unemployment to diminish?


Don't all levels of government have enough to do without reducing it to the English jousts whose only purpose is to unseat the opposite rider, and nothing more?


To this end I have signed on to the following letter for the Anti-Defamation League:

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, join ADL in the call for a more respectful political debate.

Urge Congress to lead by example and bring us back to a more civil discourse by asking your elected officials to:

  • Act to dramatically to change the tenor of our national public discourse.
  • Use their bully pulpit to set a tone of civility.
  • Refrain from overheated rhetoric that inflames passions and stokes hate and violence in America and speak out against others who employ these base tactics.
  • Rededicate themselves to engaging in reasoned and thoughtful debate on the very difficult issues confronting our nation.
  • Work together with other Members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle to restore a level of respect and civility to public life that will reflect the best of America.

This has been sent this afternoon to our Representative Cantor and Senators Webb and Warner. I urge you to go to the ADL website and sign on and have this letter sent to them and enlist them in this sacred cause, to change the temperature and temperament, the language and linguistics of those elected to represent us, who can by example, on the floors to Senate, House and Legislature, set a new temperate tone and tenor to be followed by young and old.


This is where I conclude. Debbie Friedman's use of words in her music and the exact reverse in the vituperativeness of the public space is a challenge to us in our own lives, with our families and friends, in shul and at home, at work and at play. How do we speak? What do we say? How do we say it? What behavior do we model to our children and grandchildren?


The following comes from one of my favorite Psalms that appears in the Shabbat and Yom Tov Pesukay D'Zimra, that we perforce omit of the necessity of time:


Psalm 34:

Come, you children, hearken unto me;

I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

            Who is the man that loves life,

            And desires long life, filled with joy?

Then keep your mouth from evil,

And your lips from speaking guile.

            Depart from evil, and do good;

            Seek peace, and pursue it.


Shabbat Shalom