A makeshift memorial erected in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., days after the shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead, Feb. 18, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Joe Raedle-Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial erected in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., days after the shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead, Feb. 18, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Joe Raedle-Getty Images)

To fight for gun control, learn to understand the other side

I have great passion for the problem of gun violence — as a mother, an American and a Jew.

As a mother, I feel stabs of vicarious pain when I learn that parents have lost their precious children in heinous, senseless attacks, made lethal by the availability of guns. As an American, I am horrified that the United States is the only nation awash in guns and needlessly besieged by gun violence in peacetime. As a Jew, the unnecessary death of some 30,000 people per year in our country is an unbearable assault on our most central value: the value of life itself. Any policy change that could prevent even a few of those gun deaths would be a pikuach nefesh (life-saving) imperative.

How can it be that any decent, reasonably lucid American could understand the matter differently?

Classical Jewish sources teach that a core competency for Jewish living is the ability to view important debates from many sides. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, “No one is to be given a seat on the Sanhedrin unless he is able to prove from the Torah that a reptile is pure” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17a). This is an astonishing text considering that, in Biblical law, a reptile is the paradigm of ritual impurity. It is by definition impure. But to serve as a judge in ancient Israel, one needed to be able to demonstrate that a reptile is the very opposite of what it is. A remarkable feat of cognitive dexterity.

In a later midrash, it is said that Rabbi Meir could prove the purity of a reptile in 49 ways and that school children in the times of Saul, David and Samuel knew how to argue for and against every Torah law in 49 ways. (Midrash Psalms 12)

This is not simply because Jews are supposed to be intellectually agile and argumentative, as is commonly assumed. This is a profound practice of conceptual empathy, in which we work throughout our lives to understand complex matters from every conceivable perspective. The reason we do this is to expand our own understanding and to train ourselves to honor the views of those who think differently than we do.

When I teach this material to groups of Jews, someone generally raises her hand and says, “What about racism?” Some things are unequivocally wrong, not simply a matter of perspective.

That is undoubtedly correct. The Jewish obligation to comprehend multiple dimensions of an issue may not apply to our core moral and religious imperatives. But as for the people who think differently than we do, there is no limit.

I always have much to learn about how someone constructs a worldview different from my own. What is the life story that underlies their view? What life experiences have led them to the perspectives that they hold? How does the world look from their vantage point? Might I, in their life circumstances, have come to similar conclusions?

Recognizing the humanity of every person demands a practice of radical curiosity even about such unquestionable matters. Each human being, created in the image of God, deserves my boundless curiosity. To do otherwise — to consider such people as a kind of subhuman enemy — is demeaning of God’s creation, and therefore blasphemous.

On issues as vital and visceral as gun policy, there are surely times and places for moral proclamation and for exhortation about the value of life. But there is no need — and no justification — to shame and dehumanize the people on the other side of the divide. NRA supporters are not monsters who delight in the deaths of children in their classrooms. I am completely unable to understand their view, and I will not rest until my view prevails. But I must remember that they are human beings just as I am.

Those of us who are desperate to effect life-saving gun policy in this country will not prevail by humiliating and demonizing our opponents.

We will only win when we advocates of gun control begin to speak with respect of the cultural values and perspectives associated with gun ownership. The walls of resistance on the other side will only come down when the shaming ceases and then, with a renewed sense of shared humanity, can solutions be found to reduce the number of innocents gunned down in our streets.

Let us be passionate and tireless in our work to control the plague of gun violence in our country. But let us do so without compromising our own humanity and the fabric of our society by imagining that those on the other side are less human than we are.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.