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.
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
3330 Grove Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221