Ban the Guns, Strengthen Democracy

There are two different forces arrayed against gun control in the current debate—the forces of opposition and the forces of obfuscation. The forces of opposition are those whose allegiance to gun ownership brooks neither compromise nor debate. The forces of obfuscation are a more challenging opponent. Their stance is not a fealty to gun ownership per se, nor a mindless chanting of the fantastical slogans of opposition to government tyranny, neither are they simple supporters of easy and universal access to guns. They think gun owners should be trained, perhaps even licensed. Guns should be regulated. However, they stand on the peak of an Olympus of their own making from where they can discern that the territory is far more complicated than you know (you on the right, you on the left) and therefore none of your solutions are really helpful. Most mass killings were not carried out by people with rifles. Most of the gun violence in this country does not involve the types of weapons that the current and proposed laws would regulate or ban.

More importantly, nobody who is writing in support of gun control actually knows of what they speak. The editorial writers and pundits make rookie mistakes when speaking of weapons and ammunition. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud. Then, there is the fact that in the midst of a violent assault by a man armed with a gun it is better to be armed than unarmed; teaching people to defend themselves with furniture or their laptops is tragically absurd. Finally, those on the gun control side of the aisle need to admit that there are actually bad and violent people in this country and a person should defend themselves and their family. Ultimately, the obfuscator’s final argument (and Sam Harris has written one of the more eloquent of these) is that he has a gun, and he is trained to use it, and therefore he knows more about both the problem, and the problems with all the solutions, than you do. Continue reading

Are They His Adornments?: On Guns and Masculinity

This is a piece that I published a few years ago in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility in an issue on gun control. In light of the recent shootings I thought it might be of interest.

When I went to Israel in the mid-1970s to study in yeshivah for a year (which became two years, then five years, then aliyah and a life-long commitment, then twelve years), there was a moment ritualized in the surety of its repetition with every new cadre of American students.

As I was studying at a hesder yeshivah, all of my Israeli contemporaries were either serving or on the brink of serving in the Israeli army. As a result of this, our Israeli colleagues in the bet midrash and with whom we shared dorm rooms and lunch tables were — when on security detail — armed. This was quite a change from the urban and suburban lives that my American colleagues and I had led prior to our time at yeshivah. The reaction to this situation is fascinating in hindsight. The overwhelming response was awe. Here’s the ritualized moment: At some time during the year, almost every one of the Americans would borrow one of the Israeli students’ weapons (usually an M16 submachine gun), unloaded, and be photographed holding the gun. There were ancillary moments to this central ritual such as acquiring IDF shirts or hats or T-shirts. However, all were secondary to the moment of posing with the weapon. Continue reading

Purim, Persia and … Ahmadinejad ?

Purim is upon us. Remember Purim? For those not in the know, Purim is the next in the order of Jewish holidays which fit the meme: “they tried to kill us, they didn’t, lets eat,”—though Purim adds “and drink,”—a lot. Most Jews who celebrate Purim remember it as the story of the evil Haman who bribed the buffoonish King Ahaseurus to kill all the Jews in the Persian kingdom as a result of his rivalry with the Jewish courtier Mordecai. The story is situated in the second or third century BCE in Shushan the capital of Persia. According to most scholars the story is a myth. However, like all myths, the story seems to reflect a deep truth and it has resonated with Jews over the centuries since it reflected the fact that in many countries over time Jews had been threatened with extinction by a variety of satraps and princes and ministers and so on, and had survived against all odds.

The Purim story (told in the biblical Book of Esther) is also different insofar as the Jews not only survived but they fought back and killed those who would have killed them—and their wives and children. This fantasy of revenge must have resonated deeply for a Jewish community in the many stations of the diaspora in which they were powerless against the actual enemies who wished them actual harm.

There is however a different reading of the Book of Esther which offers the Purim narrative as a darker story which poses a different set of questions. The key to the story is a statement by a Rabbi who lived centuries after the story might have happened, in the place that it was supposed to have happened—Persia. Before we get to this statement I will summarize the story itself for those whose biblical knowledge is a bit rusty.  Continue reading

Violence, Nonviolence, Occupy LA and the Law

A very long time ago, at the eastern end of the Roman Empire, in the Land of Israel, two Rabbis were having a political conversation. It was actually more like an argument. We are able to eavesdrop on the conversation because it was recorded (centuries later) in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 61b). The Empire had decreed that teaching Torah in public was forbidden. One of the Rabbis, Pappus ben Yehudah, came across the other Rabbi, Akiva ben Yosef, while the latter was doing exactly that which the government had forbidden. Rabbi Akiva was gathering folks together and teaching them Torah. Pappus was fearful for Akiva’s life. He confronted Akiva, saying: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”

Akiva responded with a longish parable whose essence was: what can the Romans do to me? They can put me in jail and/or they can kill me. However, if I am not studying Torah it is as if I am dead already. I will not imprison myself. If the Romans want to imprison me that is a choice that they will make and be responsible for.

The end of the story is known. Akiva was killed as a martyr. However, there was one more scene before the end. After the Romans arrested Akiva, as he was sitting in jail, Pappus was also arrested and jailed together with Akiva. Pappus, apparently, had not been arrested for teaching Torah and when he saw Akiva he said: “Happy are you, Akiva, that you have been seized for teaching and studying Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things!”

I have been thinking of nonviolent civil disobedience a lot over the last week or so, specifically in regard to the encampment and eviction of Occupy LA and this story continues to hold my imagination. Continue reading