Responsibility

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Every time I see someone talking about rights lately, I find myself thinking about mitzvot (commandments), the core of Jewish life and practice. There are spiritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot, mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and God and mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and each other. Taking on the mitzvot means accepting obligations: to each other, to the community, to God. The whole system is rooted in an ethic of obligation and responsibility.

Ruth Messenger wrote a lovely piece comparing the notion of rights with the Jewish notion of responsibilities or obligations. She observes -- correctly -- that they're not opposed to each other. There's no reason that being Jewish should be in tension with the notion of human rights. But in this moment, I am increasingly feeling that the American focus on rights and individual liberties is getting in the way of our capacity to recognize our responsibilities to each other and to our community.

I told a high school friend on Facebook recently that I can't understand resistance to gun safety measures. Wouldn't a responsible gun owner be willing to operate within greater constraints in order to ensure the safety of others, most especially our children?  In response, he told me simply that he's not willing to relinquish any of his constitutional rights, period. This sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, but this conversation really happened. Our worldviews just don't make sense to each other.

Intellectually I grasp where he's coming from, but spiritually it feels foreign to me. Part of being in community is balancing what I want with what others need. Living in community means we have obligations to each other. Living in community means giving up some individual control or benefit for the sake of the collective. For instance, most of us might not "want" to give up part of our earnings, but we pay taxes because that's how we ensure roads and schools and necessary services, right? 

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. If you already agree with me, you're nodding. If you don't agree with me, I don't know that anything I say will change your mind. But staying silent feels like giving up. 27 school shootings so far this year, and it's only May. (Not to mention shootings everywhere else.) The ready availability of guns that liquefy tissue means that no one is safe. Not at school, not at shul or church or gurdwara, not at a nightclub, not at the grocery store. How are we living like this? 

Hillel teaches, "Don't separate yourself from the community." (Pirkei Avot 2:5) Torah tells us time and again that we're obligated to protect the vulnerable. Rambam teaches that it's our obligation to give tzedakah -- not "charity," rooted in the Latin caritas, but giving that's fueled by tzedek, justice. Even the poorest person, someone who needs tzedakah, is obligated to give -- because supporting others is fundamental to community. Obligation to others is fundamental to community. 

And yet in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, and the Laguna California mass shooting, and the Uvalde mass shooting, who's framing the gun safety conversation in terms of mutual obligation? I groused to a historian friend: had the Founding Fathers only been Jewish, we might have a very different social compact. To my surprise, she replied that the Founders thought about citizenship not just as a matter of rights, but also as a matter of responsibilities to one another and to the whole!

[T]he founders of this country did not believe in unlimited individual freedom.. . [They agreed that] the best form of government was one in which individuals gave up a portion of their total freedom in order to take care of the community. [Source]

I don't remember learning that in school. I wish everyone did. We give up a portion of our total freedom -- the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, no matter the consequences for others -- in order to live in community with other human beings.  We balance what each of us personally wants with some responsibility to the needs of others. That's part of what it means to be a member of a community -- a citizen, part of a bigger whole, responsible to that whole. 

I wish I believed that this framing would shift our nation's echo-chamber conversations about Constitutional rights. (Rights that initially belonged only to white men, though that's a different conversation.) What would our nation be if we focused less on our rights than on what we owe to each other? At minimum, we owe each other the space to live and breathe without fear of being gunned down. Why is anyone's desire to own an assault weapon more important than that?

 

 

Two poems that moved me recently:


Magazine

 


The pages of my magazines
are smudged with sriracha
and spattered with schmaltz.

They fall open naturally
to roasted eggplant crosshatched
and crowned with tahini,

bright cubes of cantaloupe
punchy with ancho chile
and speckled with queso fresco.

But magazine can also mean
a chamber for holding cartridges
to feed automatically

into a gun, which reminds me
of the article I don't need
to re-read -- the one where

a radiologist describes
the slim silver line sketched
by an ordinary bullet,

versus the way
one fired from an AR-15
ripples waves of flesh

like a cigarette boat
traveling through
a narrow canal

turning any part of us
into smashed overripe melon,
nothing left to repair.

 


 

Roasted Eggplant With Caramelized Tahini, Milk Street

Chili Lime Melon Salad, Milk Street

What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic


Morning after

Robb

I sat with my twelve year old on the deck, and listened as he chanted the first few lines of his Torah portion. His voice cracked once or twice. That's been happening lately. All I could think about was the parents in Uvalde whose ten year olds won't grow up to be twelve year olds with cracking voices. 

Shortly before we started Torah portion practice, I'd told him that there was another school shooting. I wanted him to hear it from me and not from a friend at school in the morning. I assured him that where we live is one of the safest places to be. He said, "I know, Mom," and changed the subject.

I believe what I said to him. The place where we live is as safe a place as any I can think of. And yet I can't promise him that an angry gunman won't break into his school, or into our synagogue, or into the supermarket where his auntie shops with his Black cousins. I can't promise safety. No one can.

And I don't want to tell him my real fear -- that in Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner's words, our country loves guns more than it loves children. That we're so incapable of reckoning with worship of the 2nd amendment that we will never be able to make this nation safe for him or for anyone. 

After 3500 mass shootings in the last decade, and 27 school shootings this year, Republicans remain opposed to gun safety measures. Anne Helen Peterson notes that this is life under minority rule. Sherrilyn Ifill notes that feelings of helplessness benefit the status quo, and we need to resist that. 

I think of the parents of those fourth graders in Uvalde, a scant 90 minutes from where I grew up. Right now some of them are sitting with the most horrific loss there is. I think of the clergy in Uvalde who need to try to provide comfort for an unbearable grief that cannot, should not, be assuaged.

When I dropped my son off at elementary school this morning, I wanted to cry. I don't really think his school will be next, but some school will. It's an article of faith for me that despair is never the answer, that a better world is always possible. But right now it's hard to see how we get there from here. 

 


More gun violence; more racism; more grief

Once again, horrific violence. A white gunman named Dylann Roof entered a Black church in Charleston, SC, and killed nine, including a pastor who was also a state senator. (New York Times: Charleston Church Shooting Leaves 9 DeadNew Yorker, Murders in Charleston by Jelani Cobb.)

According to witnesses who survived, the gunman asked for the pastor, sat next to him during Bible study, and then shot him, saying "I have to do it; you rape our women and you're taking over our country." The church in question is one of the oldest Black churches in the United States.

When I think about the racism and the hatred which underpinned this act of terrorism, I am beyond words.  I react like a child: this shouldn't be possible. But it is all too possible for people to be steeped in hatred and fear of those who look different from them, and for that hatred to lead to murder.

Tomorrow is Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. There is a horrible confluence in that remembrance and this latest act of hatred against Black people. And that the shooting took place in a church, a house of worship and peace, just makes it more awful still.

The victims and their loved ones are in my prayers. You can send your support and prayers with the members of Mother Emmanuel church here, and if you would like to send a donation to the church and/or the families of the victims, here's the church's website.

A a white woman witnessing this horror from afar, I feel called to teshuvah, to soul-searching. What can I do to change the reality in which this kind of hate crime is possible?  I want my nation to be better than this. I want humanity to be better than this.

May the Source of Comfort bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

 

Worth reading:

  • "Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much?" -- Anthea Butler, in the Washington Post
  • "There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship." -- President Barack Obama, remarks
  • "A hated people need safe spaces, but often find they are scarce. Racism aims to crowd out those sanctuaries; even children changing into church choir robes in Alabama have been blown out of this world by dynamite. That is racism’s purpose, its raison d’etre, and it has done its job well." -- Jamil Smith, in the New Republic
  • And here are words from one of my rabbinic colleagues: "What we need is a passionate and healing response to our national pain and fragility, one that unabashedly calls out the racist undertones of media reporting, which, it seems, differentiates by label between white, black and brown criminals and victims." -- Rabbi Menachem Creditor, in the Huffington Post