It is not unusual as a rabbi to receive calls for interviews at holiday time, with newspapers, radio and television reporters. Typically they ask questions about the meaning of the observance.
Sadly, last Monday's interviews were not about Passover at all but rather about the previous day's tragic shootings in Overland Park, Kansas. By now you know early that Sunday afternoon, Frazier Glenn Miller of Aurora, Mo., opened fire in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, killing a man and his grandson before killing a woman outside Village Shalom, a nearby residential senior center.
What was stunning to me was the authorities' initial hesitancy to acknowledge the shootings as hate crimes. They took place on the eve of Passover outside two Jewish facilities, and the perpetrator has a long and established history as an anti-Semite, racist and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. In one interview four years ago, during an unsuccessful bid for public office, he claimed Jews were "committing genocide against the white race" and that Adolf Hitler was "the greatest man who ever walked the earth." And if any doubt remained about his motivations, as he sat in the police car on his way to incarceration, he screamed "Heil Hitler!" Yes, the motivations behind these shootings seem pretty clear: hate.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 900 hate groups operating in the United States. The Center defines hate groups as organizations with "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics." Forty-two are active in New York State with names like the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nationalist Socialist Aryan Workers Party. But the names make little difference, really. All would get rid of us... but not just us.
Bigots are equal-opportunity haters. Listen to Miller's assessment of racial diversity in America: "The dark peoples multiply like rats all around us, and as more tens-of-millions of them invade our country from all over the world, our race is drowning literally in seas of colored mongrels." Internet sites that post ant-Semitic propaganda attack African-Americans and gays just the same.
Many have sought to classify the extreme prejudice that motivated Miller as a form of mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association does not because, it maintains, bigotry is so prevalent in America that it cannot be labeled anything but normative.
To cleanse our society of the fear of the "other" that animates such bigotry will require better monitoring of hate groups and their propaganda, and a better job educating children, especially those in communities without much diversity and therefore less exposure to those different from them, to grow into tolerant adults. And because that will take a generation, we better start now.
In the meantime, though, there is another step we certainly can take. A hatemonger cannot shoot people without a gun. How a felon who had served more than three years in prison on weapons charges, for planning robberies, and for plotting the murder of Morris Dees could get his hands on the three guns in his possession that Sunday in Kansas is beyond comprehension. Apparently he worked with a "straw buyer," someone with a clean record who bought them legally and then gave or sold them to Miller.
Some will argue that tighter gun control laws would not have stopped this tragedy from occurring. Yet, the technology exists to make -- I wince at the term -- "smart guns" that will respond only to the owner's fingerprint. The fact is that if guns were not so easily available to the average American, then it would be much more difficult for sick individuals like Miller to acquire them.
And we bear responsibility for that. One of the most conveniently overlooked admonitions of the Torah's "Holiness Code," Leviticus Chapter 19, verse 17 warns: "Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him." "What does this mean?" asked the 19th century Gerrer Rebbe. It means: "When you rebuke your neighbor, rebuke yourself at the same time. For you, too, have a share in his transgression." Or, as we like to say it: When you point the finger of blame at somebody else know, there are always three more fingers pointing back at you.
We, like all Americans, hold a share of the guilt for what happened in Kansas City because we have failed to keep effective gun control legislation at the top of the national agenda -- if it ever really has been there at all. There just wouldn't be the Columbines and the Newtowns and the Overland Parks if there weren't such easy access to guns. Thirty thousand Americans will die from gun violence this year alone.
How does the argument for gun control play out in Jewish law? It would be disingenuous to claim that the Torah addresses it specifically. The Torah knows nothing of guns. And, in fact, Rabbinic rulings drawn from the book of Exodus do allow for citizens to be armed adequately in their own defense. Apply those opinions to today's realities, and private gun ownership is permissible under the Halachah.
But that's not the end of the story. Civil legislation in Deuteronomy prioritizes public safety, with the Talmud and subsequent legal codes demanding that any threats to public safety be removed, and even that circumstances causing the public to fear for its safety be similarly eliminated. And, the Talmud prohibits the distribution of weapons to those who would resell them to criminals, as happened in this case. So, extend these very specific halachot to contemporary circumstances, and one derives our tradition's clear call for stricter gun control legislation.
It is a call we have failed to answer, and now we must acknowledge our complicity in this latest tragedy.
A recent column in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, titled "The Oldest Hatred, Forever Young," pointed out that of the more than 6,500 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2012 most were race related, 20 percent were related to sexual orientation and 20 percent were related to religion. And of those concerning religion, two-thirds were aimed at Jews, a figure constant over the past decade, which led Bruni to observe: "Our country has come so far from the anti-Semitism of decades ago that we tend to overlook the anti-Semitism that endures."
He is correct; we must not overlook it. And we will not. But the modern plagues of bigotry and guns are broader societal concerns. Nor should we forget that Kansas City's victims were Christian. "When hatred is loosed," Bruni writes, "we're all in the crossfire."
Passover is the Jewish festival of national liberation -- our people's struggle for redemption, which seems, at times such as this, yet unrealized. "More than one enemy has risen against us to destroy us," the Hagadah reminds us. "In every generation some rise up to plot our annihilation." But we also know that our particular historical experiences demand we act for the betterment of the entire human community.
Our tradition never has been one that closes doors to shut out the concerns of the world but one that opens them so the world's concerns become our concerns.
Every year at the Passover seder we open a door, the door for Elijah. Rabbi Avi Weiss, the pioneering rebbe of a Modern open Orthodoxy, tells a story:
I remember my son, Dov, as a child at the seder table, once asking innocently, "Why do we have to open the door for Elijah the Prophet? He has to get around quickly -- can't he just squeeze through the cracks?" The answer may be that the act of opening the door is more central than it first appears. The point of the seder is to reenact our redemption from Egypt even as we stress the hope for future redemption...with the welcoming of Elijah, who our tradition says will be the harbinger of the messianic period. But for the messiah to come, we too must do our share, opening the door and welcoming him in. Sitting on our hands and waiting is not enough.
In the days to come, may we remember to act.