Friday, June 29, 2018

Is It Just Like the Holocaust?

You may have seen an article in the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week asking “Is It Just Like the Holocaust?” While the entire organized Jewish community has condemned the policy of separating children and parents at the border, a debate has now broken out over whether comparisons to the Holocaust are accurate or not.

            When I say the “entire organized Jewish community”, it’s worth bearing in mind how unprecedented this is. Obviously individual Jews may have different opinions, but 350 national and local organizations issued a statement saying that “our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today and compels our commitment to an immigration system in this country that is compassionate and just.” Our local JCRC and the Washington Board of Rabbis issued a similar statement and even the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel called for the policy to be rescinded and for families to be immediately reunited. For a broader view of the organized community’s perspective on immigration, take a look at the JCRC’s comprehensive policy adopted last year. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the JCRC board representing the Conservative congregations and rabbinate of the greater Washington area.)

            On a certain level my main issue with Holocaust comparisons to the current situation is that they are unhelpful if they divert our attention. While the policy of deliberately separating families has at least on paper been reversed, there are still hundreds if not thousands of children who have been separated from their parents and many families may never be reunited. As Federal Judge Dana Sabraw wrote in his ruling earlier this week ordering the Federal government to reunite children and parents as quickly as possible, "The practice of separating these families was implemented without any effective system or procedure for (1) tracking the children after they were separated from their parents, (2) enabling communication between the parents and their children after separation, and (3) reuniting the parents and children after the parents are returned to immigration custody following completion of their criminal sentence. This is a startling reality," the judge wrote. "The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings. Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainees' release, at all levels—state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process."

            No, it is not the “just like” the Holocaust in the sense that there are no death camps or gas chambers. But many Holocaust survivors who were hidden as children or survived the Kindertransport, and their children and grandchildren, do see parallels in the trauma that separation of children from parents can cause, as well as the dehumanizing language (“infest, animals”) and scapegoating being used.

            In January 1993 I was part of a group of ten rabbis who spent a week in Haiti. We went there because while he was running for President, Bill Clinton criticized the first Bush Administration’s policy of returning Haitian “boat people” to Haiti, but then announced after winning the election that he would keep it in place.
            There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done.

“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?

Jews are a people of memory. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.

Something need not be “just like the Holocaust” for me to know that it is unjust. As long as children remain separated from their parents, the Jewish community will continue to raise its voice. As Hillel said: “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Facts and Fictions about Immigration

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famously quoted as saying that while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

There is a lot of misinformation floating around discussions of the Trump administration’s policy of removing children from their parents and about immigration generally. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, let alone an immigration lawyer. But I did study basic international law (at Georgetown) and the history of immigration (in graduate school) and while a rabbi in York, Pa. from 1997 - 2001 I spent a lot of time visiting people being detained by the then-INS and working with and sometimes translating for immigration lawyers. I believe that I have a pretty decent handle on the facts and legalities but will be happy to correct anything I write which is demonstrated to be incorrect.

On the matter of children being held separately from their parents, I have seen people say or write things along the lines of “that’s what happens when you break the law, and crossing into the US illegally is breaking the law.” However, the family separation is not only happening to people apprehended in the act of or shortly after crossing illegally.  It’s also happening to those who present themselves for asylum.

It is an established right under US and international law to show up at a legal port of entry and apply for asylum. Once you do that, you are legally entitled to remain in the country and be given an asylum hearing before an immigration judge. Since some asylum claims are false or unfounded, the government is within its rights to detain you in order to make sure you show up for your hearing and don’t just blend into the population and disappear. But this detention is not supposed to be a punishment; it’s merely meant to make sure you show up for your hearing and then leave if your claim of asylum is denied.

Attorney General Sessions and other administration officials don’t like this law and are seeking to deter people from coming here and seeking asylum, and they see the policy of separating children from their parents as a deterrent. He has acknowledged this. The president has also acknowledged that he is using these children as a bargaining chip to force congressional authorization to build his wall.

Asylum seekers have done nothing wrong. They are complying with the law. Our government is taking away their children to prevent them from doing something it doesn’t like but which is completely legal.

While the intent of this policy is to deter people from seeking asylum, the result may be the opposite of that intended. If an asylum seeker comes here and presents herself for asylum, she will have her kids taken away and only have them returned if she agrees to be deported. (By the way, the wait for an asylum hearing is over a year.) On the other hand, if she simply tries to sneak over the border, she might get caught, in which case she will either have her kids taken away or be deported -- same result as if she followed the law. But if she is successful, as some are, she will have her kids with her and try to blend into the population along with 11 million or so other undocumented immigrants. We may already be seeing this as illegal border crossings are once again on the rise after years of decline, despite the new “zero tolerance” policy.

I often see people ask in all innocence, “why don’t they just come here legally?” In the case of those seeking asylum who are having their kids taken away, the fact of the matter is that they have.

But obviously there are lots of people who do come here illegally and I often see people say things along the lines of “my family came here legally, they should too.”

Since the plurality of my friends and acquaintances are American Jews whose ancestors came here during the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924, yes, your family probably came here legally. But with some caveats. First of all, there were basically no immigration laws at that time. No visas, no quotas. At least if you were White, you showed up at Ellis Island and if you were basically healthy you were admitted to this country.

Beyond that, there’s a good chance that someone in your family broke some laws in the process of immigrating here. The last of my immigrant relatives died in 1999 before video cameras and so on were common and I deeply regret the fact that I didn’t get some of the discussion that I had with them on video. But I distinctly remember my immigrant relatives telling stories of bribing guards to let them cross borders, of falsifying papers and changing names to keep families together. Our family legend is that “Arian” was not the original surname at all and was chosen to help an ancestor evade conscription by the Tsar’s army. Most of us have similar stories and we don’t try to hide them, indeed we are proud of them because it was a moral imperative to escape persecution and get here in any way possible. True then, true now.

Finally, I see people writing that illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs and/or living off welfare. Let’s examine these claims a bit. First of all, undocumented people are not eligible for most social welfare programs. They almost certainly aren’t living off welfare. Yes, their kids are in school and so on but remember that if you are born here, you are an American regardless of whether or not your parents are here legally.

Second, are they really “stealing jobs”? Whose jobs, what jobs? The unemployment rate is 3.8% and employers are having a hard time filling the jobs they have available. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, owners of crab canning factories are up in arms because the administration has cut the visas they use for their workforce by 40 percent and they can’t get the employees they need. I’ll repeat something I’ve been saying for years: if you are morally opposed to benefiting in any way from undocumented workers, get ready to cut your own lawn, do your own home repairs and remodeling, and don’t eat in restaurants or stay in hotels.

Immigration is a complicated and contentious issue and to my mind, some politicians of both parties perceive a benefit in continuing to exploit the issue for political gain. There have been some genuinely bipartisan attempts to fix the system and I hope those continue, but for now, I think that it’s important that when we debate and discuss we at least have the same basic facts in front of us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Rabbi, The Monk, and The Chametz

In the spring of 1997 I was several months into a nearly year-long stay at the Trappist Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. The monastery provided me with a cabin, library access, and vegetarian meals, in return for which I gave occasional lectures on aspects of Jewish life to the community of monks, and taught occasional classes to those monks who were interested in studying with me. I spent every other weekend in Reno, Nevada -- about three hours away -- where I was the part-time rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, which was between full-time rabbis. As part of my rabbinic duties it was my responsibility to arrange the sale of chametz, leavened products which Jews may not own during Passover. Because it is often difficult and costly to throw away all of your chametz (since for example virtually everything in your liquor cabinet is chametz), congregants sign a document appointing their rabbi as their agent to sell the chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. While the rabbi then generally buys the chametz back after Passover, all of the forms state quite clearly that this is in fact a sale and not just a ritual exercise, and that until and unless the chametz is repurchased, it is fully the property of the Gentile buyer.

Since I lived among thirty or so Christian monks, I didn't think it would be too hard to find a Gentile to buy the chametz. As it turned out, it was more complicated than I thought it would be. Although I saw all of the monks frequently, I didn't get to converse with them very often. Contrary to popular belief, Trappist monks do not take a "Vow of Silence", but they do have a practice of silence throughout most of the day. They spend many hours in prayer and meditation and much of the rest of their waking hours working in agriculture or crafts. And they don't have cell phones.

One of the monks, Father Mark, had a graduate degree in Bible from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and knew Hebrew quite well. But he had never studied post-biblical Jewish literature and asked me to teach him Mishnah. We met frequently and during the course of the year studied all of Tractate Berachot (the laws of prayer) and most of Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers," rabbinic ethical maxims). Since I saw him often during our study sessions and he was studying Judaism anyway, Father Mark seemed an appropriate candidate to serve as designated chametz-purchaser. I explained the concept and the procedures to him and he readily agreed.

Since it would have been nearly-impossible to observe the Passover dietary laws in the context of the monastery I arranged to spend all of Passover with friends in Los Angeles,about 500 miles away, and thus had to leave the monastery the day before the day of the first seder. Shortly before I was supposed to leave, I went to find Father Mark so we could sign the chametz sale documents. I found him, but he said to me "I can't do it."

Why not? Father Mark explained that through his studies of the Mishnah he was trying to learn to "think like a rabbi", and he understood that the sale of chametz was in fact a legally binding sale and not just a legal fiction. But, he said, "as a monk I have a vow of poverty, and that means I am not allowed to own any property. It's not a valid sale."

While I am not certain that a Catholic monastic vow has any standing in Jewish law, I appreciated Father Mark's concerns. His own religion precluded him from owning anything, and if the buyer never takes possession, the seller still owns it. In that case, all the Jews of Reno who were depending on me to sell their chametz for them would inadvertently be violating the laws of Passover. I was glad that I had taught Father Mark to "think like a rabbi" but I was also faced with the very real need to complete the chametz sale. We both realized that Father Mark's recent realization had put me in quite a bind.
"You could sell it to the Abbott." Father Mark explained that while individual monks are not permitted to own anything, the monastery itself obviously could, since it owned hundreds of acres, dozens of buildings, thousands of fruit trees and a bunch of tractors and pickup trucks. Maybe the Abbott would buy the chametz on behalf of the monastery, Father Mark mused, but then added that he didn't know exactly where the Abbott was at the moment, and he wasn't totally sure that the Abbott, not having studied Mishnah with us, would agree. "Is there something else you could do?"

Then I recalled that in Jewish law, an agent has the right to appoint a sub-agent. The Jews of Reno had appointed me as their agent to sell their chametz, but there was nothing to prevent me from delegating that task to someone else. I phoned the nearest Conservative rabbi, who was in Sacramento and did have a cell phone, and he agreed that he would serve as my agent and sell the Reno chametz along with that of Sacramento. I borrowed the monastery's fax machine, faxed Rabbi Taff some paperwork, and all was in order.
Every year as Passover approaches, I am reminded of Father Mark, the kind and gentle Trappist monk, and his concern that the Jews of Reno not fail in their duties to God through his own observance of his duties to God. May we all have such respect for those who serve God differently than we do.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The African Refugee Crisis in Israel

Yesterday morning I was one of 13 area rabbis who met with Reuven Azar, Deputy Chief of Mission, and Yaron Gamburg, Minister of Public Diplomacy, at the Israeli Embassy. The meeting was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council to discuss Israel’s recent decision to deport roughly 38,000 African asylum seekers who have been living in Israel for a number of years.

            This was really an unprecedented meeting which was a response to the fact that a number of mainstream Jewish organizations have called on Israel to reverse this policy -- organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and our own local Jewish Community Relations Council on whose board I serve. While there have been other meetings between rabbis or other Jewish leaders and the Embassy in the past, they dealt with “our” issues -- conversion and who is a Jew, religious pluralism, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. This is the first time I can recall where the mainstream Jewish community has been significantly at odds with the Israeli government on an issue which doesn’t impact our own narrow interests.

            Simultaneously with our meeting, a couple of other things happened concerning this issue. Five prominent American Jewish leaders whose pro-Israel credentials are unchallenged (Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, and Orthodox rabbis Irving Greenberg, Marvin Hier, and Avi Weiss) issued a statement warning that going ahead with the deportations would cause “incalculable damage” to Israel’s reputation. At the same time, the Supreme Court of Israel put a temporary hold on the deportations, so for the foreseeable future they will not, in fact, be carried out.

            Coverage of the meeting in the Israeli press described the meeting as “frank and respectful” which is diplomatic language which means that there were sharp disagreements and possibly some raised voices, and indeed, that is what happened.

            I don’t want to put words in the mouths of the Israeli diplomats so I won’t try to quote what was actually said, but we also received a written statement of the Israeli Government’s position on the issue which I will be happy to share with you on request. Basically, the statement tries to make the case that Israel has no legal obligation to permit the African refugees to remain and that everything Israel is doing is in accordance with international law. I don’t know whether this is accurate or not as my undergraduate studies in Foreign Service were a long time ago and it’s not my area of expertise.

            Whether or not these deportations are legal, the larger questions for me are “are they moral?” and “are they necessary?” The Israeli government statement says that Israel’s most important obligation is to the safety and well-being of its own citizens, and of course this is correct. But the statement doesn’t even attempt to make the case as to why letting these refugees remain would be harmful to Israel or why Israel couldn’t absorb them rather than expel them.

            Over the last few years Israel has portrayed itself as the “Startup Nation” which is achieving all kinds of technological miracles, or as one of the other rabbis at the meeting put it, “turning air into water.” And of course one of the key slogans of the Zionist movement coined by its founder Theodor Herzl is “im tirtzu, ain zo aggada -- If you will it, it is not a dream.” I find it difficult to believe that Israel couldn’t find a way to successfully settle these refugees if the will to do so were there -- we are talking about 38,000 people in a population of over 8 million which on a per capita basis is roughly the same percentage of the Israeli population as DACA-eligible men and women in the US population.

            I hope and pray that the Israeli government reverses its position and allows these refugees to stay. Those of us in leadership positions in the American Jewish community are constantly alarmed by the erosion of attachment to Israel and the documented fact that the younger an American Jew is, the less likely he or she is to feel that Israel is important to them. Refugees are a hot-button issue in American society right now, and the sight of mass deportations of Africans from the State of Israel to a third country where their safety cannot be guaranteed is not going to make Israel’s image better among young Jews or among Americans generally. For Israel’s own sake, this is not the way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Kosher for Passover Made Intelligible -- 2018/5778 Edition

“Kosher for Passover” Made Intelligible

The following is intended as general guidance for observing Passover according to normative Conservative guidelines. Different families have different traditions and if you have a family tradition that may be more stringent on a particular question, it is always permissible to be strict. It is not a violation of Jewish law to avoid taking leniencies even if they are legally permitted.

Observing the dietary restrictions of Passover is not always easy, but it is made even more complicated by misunderstandings and misinformation, both of which are rampant. To help you in your observance, I have prepared this Pesach Guide, trying to be as straightforward as possible. In doing so, I have consulted the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide, but I alone am responsible for the rulings and conclusions contained herein. This guide was revised in the spring of 2016 to reflect the recent decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement to permit the consumption of kitniyot. It was further revised for clarity and style in 2018.
 The full CJLS Passover Guide can ge found online at

I. What is Chametz?
Chametz (“leaven”) is the product of five specific grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. Once these grains come into contact with water for eighteen minutes they are considered chametz. These are the same five grains which can be made either into bread which requires the hamotzi blessing or into matzah. We are forbidden not only to consume these products during Pesach, but even to own them or derive benefit from them in any way. Obvious examples of chametz include bread, cakes, cereals, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages other than wine. Only products made from these five grains can become actual chametz. However, once these grains have been made into matzah they are no longer subject to becoming chametz, and thus we can use matzah meal or crumbled matzah for all kinds of different Pesach products.
Note that the issue of chametz, despite popular misconceptions, has nothing to do with the presence or absence of yeast. Crackers, pasta, pita, and flour tortillas contain no yeast, yet they are still chametz and forbidden for Passover use.
II. What are Kitniyot? 
Another category of products which Ashkenazi Jews historically did not use for Pesach is kitniyot (“legumes.”) This category in essence consists of vegetables which can be ground into flour. The most common forms of kitniyot are corn, rice, and beans. Ashkenazi authorities, fearing that people might accidentally use wheat flour while thinking it was corn or rice flour, banned the use of these products on Pesach as well. Sephardic communities never accepted this prohibition and thus Sephardic Jews have always been free to eat these products on Pesach to their heart’s content.

In December 2015 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement passed two responsa permitting the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews. Of course, just because consumption of kitniyot is permissible does not mean it is obligatory and if changing your family custom makes you uncomfortable you are free to continue to observe it.
A couple of things are worth noting here:
a.) There was never a prohibition for Ashkenazi Jews of owning kitniyot on Pesach or having them in your home. While actual chametz needs to be disposed of or sold through the agency of the rabbi and locked away, this is not necessary with kitniyot.
b.) Different communities in Europe followed different practices with regard to what was or was not considered kitniyot. Some products which have different status in different communities are garlic, mustard, and string beans. Everyone should follow their own family tradition in this regard.

III. What Products Require Kosher for Passover Certification?
Another area of confusion is what products require certification, and why some products may be purchased without certification before but not during Pesach.
During the year, an accidental admixture of forbidden foods which is less than 1/60th of the total is considered nullified. This would also apply to any accidental addition of chametz in an otherwise Kosher-for-Passover product. That is the reason why we formally nullify any overlooked chametz both the evening and the morning before Pesach. But during Pesach, even the tiniest amount of chametz cannot be nullified.
An example of this type of product is orange juice. Orange juice is a product which in the normal course of things is chametz-free. But suppose it is produced in a factory which also produces chametz-containing products. There is a remote possibility that some small amount of chametz might accidentally wind up in our orange juice, but if we bought the juice before Pesach, this would be nullified. If we buy it during Pesach, the miniscule amount of chametz is not nullified, and thus juice bought during Pesach needs certification.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if purchased before or during Pesach, i.e. they are always acceptable without special Passover certification:
Fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fresh kosher meat, fish.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if bought before Pesach but require certification if bought during Pesach:
Unflavored caffeinated coffee (flavored, instant and decaffeinated coffees require certification), sugar, pure tea (not herbal or decaf), salt, pepper, natural spices, pure fruit juices, frozen uncooked vegetables, milk, Grade A butter, hard cheeses, frozen uncooked fruit (with fruit as the only ingredient), and baking soda.
The following foods  require Kosher for Passover certification whether purchased before or during Pesach:
All baked products (matzah, matzah meal, cakes, cookies, etc.), processed foods, wine, vinegar, liquor, oils, dried fruits, candy, flavored milk, ice cream, yogurt, soda, decaffeinated coffee or tea, herbal or flavored tea, and canned tuna fish.
Rice and dried beans should either have Passover certification “for those who eat kitniyot” or else they must be sifted through before Pesach to find and dispose of any possible grains of chametz which might have become mixed in. Processed kitniyot (such as canned beans) require Passover certification as does any other processed food because of the complexity of the manufacturing process. It is never a good idea to simply rely on the ingredients listing to determine if a product is kosher for Pesach.

IV. Pets and Pesach:
The problem with pets and Pesach is not a question of animals eating chametz or non-Kosher food. Animals are not subject to the mitzvot and there is no problem with them eating anything. The issue is that Jews are forbidden to own or benefit from chametz during Pesach.
The problem can be dealt with in one of three ways:
1. Feed your pets Kosher for Passover table scraps during Pesach if that is possible.
2. Scrutinize pet food labels to make sure they contain no chametz (kitniyot and non-kosher meats such as pork or shrimp are not a problem).
3. Include your pet and its food in the sale of chametz authorization.

V. Kosher for Passover Certification:
When looking for products which require Kosher for Passover certification, it is important to make sure that the certification is actually printed on the label or bottle cap and not just a sticker which is handled at the retail level. There is no guarantee that the sticker was applied to the proper product.
Similarly, do not assume that just because a store stocks something in the Passover section that it is actually kosher for Passover. Neither the supermarket clerks nor their managers are experts in Jewish religious practices, and it is not uncommon for “Jewish” foods which are not kosher-for-Passover to be placed in or near the Passover section. It is your responsibility to check for appropriate Passover certification.
It is not uncommon to find matzah which is not Kosher for Passover -- it will state “Not For Passover Use” on the label but you must look for it. Some people eat matzah year-round and these products are not produced using the special Passover stringencies.

VI. Some Final Thoughts:
We are fortunate to live in an age when many kosher products, both for Pesach and year-round, are available even to Jews who live in areas with relatively small Jewish communities. Gone are the days when kosher-observant Jews subsisted on matzah, potatoes, cheese and eggs during Pesach. I hope that this guide makes your Passover observance more meaningful and less stressful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tafasta Merube Lo Tafasta -- Thoughts on Attainable Gun Control

Tafasta merube lo tafasta  is a phrase in the Talmud (Yoma 80a) which means if you try to do too much, you might wind up not doing anything at all. The phrase comes to mind as I see friends and colleagues, in the wake of yet another horrific massacre, advocating for the repeal of the Second Amendment, bans on private possessions of semi-automatic weapons and similar measures.

I happen to own a semi-automatic rifle. I first learned to use one in my mid-20s when I lived on a border kibbutz in Israel. I carried an Uzi for guard duty and when my work responsibilities took me to fields adjacent to the border after dark. With the current climate in the country and the rise of hate crimes, I feel safer being able to protect myself, although I also recognize that this is not for everyone. I store my ammunition in a safe away from my weapon itself, and I probably would not have a gun if we had young children in the house. But it is precisely the fact that I am a gun owner that gives me the ability to speak with some degree of knowledge about guns and what could reasonably be done to reduce the carnage in our country.

Gun owners often criticize gun control advocates as knowing nothing about guns, and there is often some truth to the claim. In order for us to all be on the same page, I’m going to begin with some definitions and facts.

A fully automatic weapon is one which will continue firing for as long as the trigger is squeezed, until the ammunition runs out. Private possession of fully automatic weapons was heavily restricted in the United States in 1934 and importation of such weapons has been banned since 1986. It’s extremely difficult to obtain a fully automatic weapon and none of the perpetrators of recent massacres have used them.

A semi-automatic weapon shoots one cartridge (“bullet”) each time the trigger is squeezed until the ammunition runs out. The AR-15 which is the weapon of choice in most recent events is a semi-automatic weapon.

A bump stock is a modification to a semi-automatic rifle which allows it to mimic an automatic by using the weapon's own recoil to allow the shooter to pull the trigger over and over much faster than they otherwise would be able to do.

A magazine (sometimes called a “clip”) is a device which feeds bullets into the weapon without having to reload. Most semi-automatic weapons have detachable magazines. The higher the capacity of the magazine, the more cartridges that can be shot without having to reload. In Maryland, it is illegal to sell magazines which have a capacity of more than ten cartridges, but it’s legal to possess them. One could drive over to Virginia and purchase a high-capacity magazine there and bring it back to Maryland, and that would be perfectly legal.

There is no generally accepted definition of the term assault weapon. There was a federal Assault Weapons Ban which passed in 1994 and expired in 2004 which banned the manufacture and sale of new weapons which have detachable magazines and at least two of the following other features: folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, flash suppressor, or grenade launcher. The weapon I own, a Hi-Point Carbine, would not qualify as an assault weapon under this legislation as it has only a detachable magazine and a pistol grip but none of the other features. Hi-Point makes only 10-round magazines and while other manufacturers make larger magazines which fit the Hi-Point, use of them generally voids the warranty on the weapon.

Background check:  anyone who purchases a gun from a licensed firearms dealer has to present valid identification and fill out a federal background check form. If you have been convicted of a crime for which the penalty can be a year or more in prison,  are under indictment for a felony, have been convicted of domestic violence or are under a domestic violence restraining order, have been dishonorably discharged from the military, or been adjudicated as “mentally defective” you will not be allowed to purchase a firearm. Since this system went into effect in 1998, more than 1.3 million sales have been denied. The main problem with this system is that it depends on states and the military to report disqualifying information to the FBI, which runs the database. The Air Force failed to do so in the case of Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed 26 people in a Texas church in November 2017. As a result, Kelley passed the background check even though he should not have due to his 2012 court-martial conviction for domestic violence.

“Gun-show loophole”: while all gun purchases from a licensed dealer require background checks, transactions between two private individuals do not. While it’s still prohibited to knowingly transfer a gun to someone who is legally prohibited from owning it, the lack of a background check makes it very difficult to prove that the seller knowingly violated the law.

Internet Gun Sales: if you Google “AR 15 for sale” you will return 15.9 million hits. However, you can’t simply go online, order a gun, and have it delivered to your home. All Internet sales must be delivered to a licensed dealer who is required to run a background check and will charge you a fee for it. If you can’t pass the background check you will be denied the gun.

I’ve given all this background because I really think it’s important that if you are advocating certain policies you ought to know what you are talking about. When I see smart people advocating to ban things which are already banned or require things which are already required, it’s frustrating to say the least.

Now that we’ve discussed terminology and current law, let’s look at some policies which might help reduce the gun carnage in our country.

Let’s be clear that advocating a repeal of the Second Amendment is a waste of time and effort. In order to amend the constitution, the proposed amendment needs a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress followed by ratification by 38 state legislatures. This is so self-evidently not going to happen that it isn’t even worth discussing.

A ban on private gun ownership and confiscation of privately-owned guns is neither politically nor technically feasible. Last year I submitted written testimony in favor of Maryland Bill HB1424, which died in committee. Under current law, anyone convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order is prohibited from owning a weapon. But there is no actual mechanism to take weapons away from such people. They are supposed to voluntarily appoint someone to turn their weapon in at a police station or licensed gun dealer, but if they don’t -- and most don’t -- nothing happens. This bill would have required the state or local police to go and get the weapons, but it failed because of the expense involved and the fact that the police didn’t want this responsibility. Not surprisingly, they did not want to be tasked with going to a home in which they know is a weapon and someone who has been found guilty of a violent crime. Now multiply this by the estimated 300 million guns already in circulation in over 100 million homes and you will see that this is a Sisyphean task.

Having said all this, it seems to me that there are at least four legislative proposals that in the current climate have a possibility of passing. They will not eliminate all gun-related deaths but they will reduce them, while preserving the right of law-abiding Americans to possess weapons for hunting, target practice and self-defense.

Ban high-capacity magazines. The need to stop and reload more frequently and to carry more magazines should reduce death tolls as most perpetrators eventually are shot or caught fleeing the scene. Reloading a spent magazine takes time and is not so easy.

Require background checks for all firearms transfers, not just those conducted by a licensed dealer.

Ban bump stocks. After the Las Vegas massacre in October, even the NRA was briefly amenable to this legislation. They of course soon changed their position, but now might be an opportune time to try again.

Institute Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) on a national scale. David French of the conservative National Review recently advocated GVROs as “a gun control measure conservatives should consider.” A GVRO would allow someone to go to court to prevent a specific person from possessing firearms. As we learned from the recent Parkland massacre as well as the Charleston and Orlando nightclub shootings, relatives and neighbors did “see something” and “say something” but authorities failed to act in time. By allowing someone to go to court, neighbors and family members and local courts would be empowered to act where others have failed. French’s specific proposal is narrower than I would like to see -- I would give neighbors and co-workers standing to petition and not just family members and those who live in the same home -- but it’s certainly the start of a conversation which could lead to meaningful outcomes.

We may be at a moment where the anger of the populace can overcome the power of the NRA. Let’s not squander it by advocating for things which will never happen and let’s work for meaningful change instead.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Study with me online!

I offer a class on the weekly Torah portion with Rashi's commentary at my synagogue, Kehilat Shalom, on the first and third Thursday of the calendar month at 8 pm Eastern Time.

I'm now offering this class simultaneously online as well.

If you want to participate in the class please click on the following link or paste it into your browser:

Please let me know by email (rabbi at kehilatshalom dot org) beforehand so I can send you the text by email.

It's a good idea to test that link before the class so you can make sure it works with your computer settings.