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V'etchanan.  August 17, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbis always face a hard decision every Shabbat. Sometimes the news calls us to speak out about injustice in the world. Judaism is about justice and we need to remind our congregations about our commitment to justice. Sometimes terrible disasters, man-made and natural disasters, call upon us to reflect on our religious obligations for compassion and mercy to others. Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles teaches that if Judaism does not teach us how to act and react to what is going on in the wider world, than what use is Judaism to anyone.

Of course, there is the other side of the decision we need to make each week. There are people right here in our community who are hurting and alone. There are people who are confused about how their life is unfolding and they search for meaning in life, something that will give them a reason to face each day with confidence, with faith and with compassion. If rabbis can’t speak to what is going on in the hearts of Jews, then why should they attend synagogue? What value does its learning have for those who are feeling lost?

Judaism is the way we live our lives. So, rabbis have to balance the needs of the individual with the concerns of the community. We live a faith that concerns itself with every aspect of our life, from birth until death and beyond. Every day we have matters of religion that we must consider as we go about our daily lives. How we dress, the kind of work that we do, the way we relate to others, the way we conduct our business, how we can find time for God and how often we need to consider our Creator. These are fundamental questions we address every day.

But community concerns are also our concern. How we relate to those who are our leaders, what responsibilities do we have for our neighbors, what must we do when we find something lost or stolen from someone else, how do we speak to others, how do we speak about others, how do we treat the people we meet on our street every day? It is not enough to say that I am a Jew in my heart. One must practice Judaism in the street every day once we leave our homes and until we return. Judaism even tells us how we must treat our parents, spouse, children and grandchildren.

I find that today, I have to address an important law in Judaism. The law states that if we build a house, we are commanded to build it with a parapet around the flat roof, so that those who go on the roof, whether family or friends, will not misstep and fall off. It is a basic safety feature to prevent accidents. It is a mitzvah to put a parapet around our roof.

The Talmud expands this law as a major statement about safety in society. The sages apply it to putting a fence around a hole that you dig so others will not fall in. They apply it to any point of danger so that people or animals will not get hurt. Modern rabbis explain that this is the law that requires us to wear seatbelts when we drive, and to put our children in appropriate seating when they are riding with us. It even requires us to be properly trained and licensed before we drive a car, no matter if there is a possibility of getting caught by law enforcement or not.

I believe that it is this same Mitzvah of the Parapet that speaks to us about the importance of sensible gun control. Even in the Talmud, Jews were permitted and at times required to bear arms in public. The Rabbis may have argued over when a sword is a required article of clothing, what the well-dressed person should wear, or if a sword is an accessory and thus should not be carried on Shabbat. But never did they say that Jews should not go out armed.

At the same time, they also required that we learn how to properly use our weapons, and how to properly care for them to prevent misuse and accidents. I believe that these laws also apply to gun ownership. Jews are allowed to carry guns, but we are required to know how to care for them and to use them safely. Jews who wish to own guns thus should be licensed by an appropriate governing body. To use a car, we must show we know how to operate it so we will not be a danger to others on the road, so too we must show we know how to handle a firearm before we should be allowed to use one.

And if I may extend the gun/car analogy, there are cars that meet the requirements to be used on our streets, and there are cars that are only permitted to be used in special circumstances, like on racetracks and in war zones. So too, there are guns that are meant for use by all people, and there are those requiring special training and limited to war zones. There is no reason to permit assault rifles into domestic use. There is no reason a person would need a high capacity magazine. Two weeks ago, police responded to a mass shooting in less than 30 seconds and still 9 people died. What possible reason is there for semi-automatic rifles and for ammunition clips with 25 or more bullets? These are for soldiers in combat situations, not for citizens looking to protect their families for random violence, nor are they for hunters searching for game. Such weapons, just because they exist, do not belong in the general population.

Judaism teaches us that ultimately, we are always responsible for our actions. We are required to think about what we do and to consider if it is a proper course of action or not. There is no leniency for those who act in the heat of the moment and thus injure someone else. The rules of damages always apply; if you hurt someone, you must pay whatever it takes to make that person whole again. Murder is never permitted no matter if it is premeditated or not, and those who commit murder find no sanctuary in any religious site. Only in cases where the injury is accidental, beyond our control, is our responsibility mitigated. There is no capital punishment in those cases but there is a concept of internal exile, where a person can only leave a city of refuge at their own peril.

But these are just our own personal responsibilities. We have social responsibilities as well. We can only sell a gun to someone who will use it properly. Thus, waiting periods and background checks are prudent and permitted. If circumstances change and a person is a danger to themselves or others, it is natural to remove guns from their possession. Judaism would say that weapons of war are too dangerous for the public to own, only professional handlers like soldiers and law enforcement officers should be trained and licensed to use assault weapons. These are the elements of sensible gun control that we should work for in our communities and in our country.

There is nothing here that should be controversial. This is Judaism at its best, promoting common sense values to promote safety to others and to ensure that life is always considered precious. Our must fundamental law, our Prime Directive if you will, is to choose life. To ensure that all people are protected from themselves and others.

Murder is prohibited by the commandments that we read today. Those commandments also require us to be fair and honest. Only those who are prepared to act responsibly with their handguns and other firearms, should be permitted to own and use these important weapons. It is against all that Judaism stands for if these weapons are used in a reckless manner.

I do want to note that there are many who feel that talk of sensible gun control is not a moral issue but a political issue, one that Judaism and other religions should stay out of. I can only say that in our politically charged world, EVERYTHING is considered to be political. I have tried to show that in the case regarding guns, as well as many other issues that political parties find themselves on opposite sides; just because politicians talk about it, does not mean it is no longer a moral or religious issue. Sensible gun control is not only a mitzvah in Judaism, but it is something that should be handled carefully and with proper intention. No matter what happens, we are always responsible for our actions. Guns do not give us rights; they impose on us responsibilities once we bring them into our lives.

I respect responsible gun owners. I respect those who choose to live their lives without guns. Guns should only be owned by those who are prepared to learn and live by standard safety procedures, safety lessons learned from those who take the time to ensure that all gun owners are properly trained in their use.

May God save us all from the reckless use of guns by those who should never be allowed to own a gun. May we find a path where people take the responsibility of gun ownership seriously so that we all may dwell together in safety, each person under their own vine and fig tree and no one will make them afraid. I pray for peace for all people who are afraid to go outside their homes, afraid to go shopping, afraid to go out and celebrate in the evening, afraid to go to school and afraid to send their children to school. We may not be able to stop all violence, but we are not free to do nothing. May God always protect us. As we say ………

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, August 17, 2019.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782