Monday, February 19, 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 that we’re all 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 weapons 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 indictmen 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 and requiring 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 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:

https://zoom.us/j/6450339344

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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Notes on a visit to the new Museum of the Bible

On Wednesday January 10 I visited the new Museum of the Bible with a number of other Jewish educators from the Greater Washington Area. On Saturday January 13, I gave a talk on my impressions. A lot of folks who couldn't attend expressed interest, so here it is.

When I give a talk I usually talk from notes, and since I am (as always) pressed for time I am just going to publish my actual notes rather than try to re-work it into a narrative.


Trip was a result of outreach from the Museum’s Education Department to Jewish educators in the area. From our perspective the purpose of the trip was simply to answer the following related questions:

Would we organize field trips there for our congregations or Hebrew schools?

Would we recommend that our members visit, take their kids.?

They’re very aware that Museum is controversial among Jews. They treated us very well and were incredibly hospitable.

Museum is massive and as a museum is very well done. They say that if you wanted to see everything you would need to spend 9 8-hour days there and that actually seems about right.

They state that they are non-sectarian and do not promote any particular denomination or any particular view of the Bible. They are presenting the Bible as it is and simply want to encourage people to engage with it.

Because the Museum is funded and run by Evangelicals there is a lot of suspicion. I can’t evaluate people's’ hearts but I actually don’t think that there is subterfuge here. The people running this Museum seem to be very sincere.

There is a lot that they do right. They do not use the term “Old Testament” but rather “Hebrew Scriptures” and even “Tanakh.” They make clear -- something that apparently many Christians don’t know -- that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and that translations vary. There is a lot of Hebrew, there is a sofer writing a sefer Torah who is an Orthodox rabbi from Beit Shemesh, they have an exhibition on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Their exhibit on the world of Jesus of Nazareth -- which I didn’t have time to visit -- seems to make clear that Jesus and his disciples were Jews living Jewish lives.

We met with the Israeli sofer, Rabbi Eliezer Adam, who is working there. He was born in the US and his family made aliyah when he was 7. If you know the code you can actually tell a lot about Orthodox Israelis by how they dress and what kippah they wear and he is right wing Modern Orthox. He says that he thinks that the intentions of the people behind the Musuem are “l’shem shamayim as they see it,”  meaning that their intentions are pure and noble.That nevertheless as hard as they try it is a basically Christian view (he actually said Gentile) of the Bible. “To them the Tanach and the New Testament are like Shmuel Aleph and Shmuel Bet.” In other words they see the Tanach as leading naturally to and foreshadowing the New Testament which is obviously a Christian perspective.

We attended the audiovisual exhibit on Hebrew Scriptures. Technology very well done -- some video and audio, some walk-through. Narrator has an Israeli accent. They do not mention Jesus or anything like that. But clearly a Christian view of the Bible. It is presented as history. Abraham is shown kneeling in prayer in a very Christian way. Strong emphasis on the sin of Adam and Eve and that since then human history is a struggle to repair the broken relationship with God.

My bottom line after a lot of thought: I would not bring our Hebrew school kids there. I think it is possible to do a trip there that would be worthwhile if perhaps you only went to the Israel Antiquities gallery and some of the other artifacts. But I wouldn’t take them to the Hebrew bible exhibit, etc., because it isn’t our perspective. If we had unlimited time and resources we could teach them how to view the museum critically but the reality is we just don’t. For Jewish students it is not a reliable source of information about the Bible. I would want students to be constantly asking themselves what the perspective being presented is and whether or not they agree with it, but I just don't think we have the time to equip our students to do that well.

Rabbi Adam said that the thinks the Museum will open up more interest in the Bible and we should use it as an opportunity to teach our students Jewish rather than Christian perspective. In theory he is right but the reality is we don’t have the resources.

Should you visit? I’m ambivalent. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time but again, the perspective presented is not a Jewish perspective.  Rabbi Adam is probably right that we need to develop our own resources and lesson plans to make a visit more worthwhile for Jewish visitors.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Two-Minute Torah: Vayeshev


Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be -- Fiddler at 53

The French actress Simone Signoret entitled her autobiography “Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be.” You may have heard me speak or read something I have written about nostalgia in the American Jewish community and how we at times long for a past that never existed or is remembered much differently than it actually was. If I had a nickel for every Jew who told me that their grandparents or great-grandparents were “very Orthodox,” I’d have a lot of nickels. But if you are like the majority of American Jews, descendants of Eastern European Jews who immigrated between 1880 and 1914, your grandparents were more likely to have been Socialists or even Communists than they were “very Orthodox.” Of course there were varying shades of observance and my great aunts and uncles (I never knew my paternal grandparents) kept kosher and occasionally went to an Orthodox synagogue but they also read the Forverts, the Yiddish daily which you may not know was a Socialist newspaper. They belonged to the Workmen’s Circle. And they listened to radio station WEVD, which was named in honor of Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist Party candidate for the presidency of the United States.

I suspect that for many of us, Fiddler on the Roof is remembered primarily for its costumes and choreography and such songs as “Tradition” and “Sabbath Prayer.”  And of course for being a huge popular hit on Broadway, and as a film, which was proudly, publicly, and affirmatively Jewish in a way that American Jews had not previously been used to.

But Fiddler on the Roof is actually more than just nostalgia. When I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia in 1989, a couple of students came to me and asked to start a theater company under Hillel’s auspices. I agreed on the condition that their efforts be educational and not simply entertaining. They decided to do Fiddler and I actually took a small role in the play -- the Rabbi. As a member of the cast, I was there during rehearsals to coach the cast on dialect and Jewish practices and also explain to them the historical context of the story. The script is most definitely not an exercise in simple nostalgia. It raises the existential questions that Jews faced in Czarist Russia 125 years ago. Can I maintain religious tradition under conditions of oppression? Should I throw in my lot with the Socialists in hopes that a new world of freedom will mean freedom for Jews as well? Emigrate to America? Make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael? Assimilate and simply become Russian? The details of the choices Tevye and his family had are different than those we face, but the dilemmas of universalism vs. particularism and modernity vs. tradition are no less pressing.