My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for March 2018: Fighter for Gun Controls and Haggadah Hunters

My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for March 2018:
Fighter for Gun Controls and Haggadah Hunter

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m a high school student who was devastated by the recent deadly shootings in a Florida school and by so many other recent awful acts of gun violence in our country.

My friends and I are organizing activities to counter this terrible trend, but I’m afraid we will not succeed against the fierce tide of gun proponents.

What should we do to get some real traction and lasting results?

Fighter for firearms controls in Fair Lawn

Dear Fighter,

I am awed by the response of students after the latest tragic gun carnage in Florida. I especially was floored by the young speaker who made her displeasure with politicians clear, saying on TV, among other strong sentiments, “We call B.S.! Shame on you!”

How awful that our innocent schools and holy houses of worship have suffered violent attacks that resulted in multiple deaths. How utterly sad that venues of merry entertainment were attacked by perverse maniacs. What a dreadful day and age we live in.

I think about this contrast. Back in the 1950s my dad sat working during the day in his quiet rabbi’s study in the Park East Synagogue in New York City on East 67th Street, right next door to the local police precinct. The shul entrance was always unlocked as he worked alone in the big empty shul building.

He told me that criminals and gangsters sometimes would come to his study door after their release from the station house and seek to engage him in conversation or ask him for counsel. Looking back now, it’s clear that his life and his safety often were in potential danger. But guns were not prevalent and terrorist attacks on vulnerable venues and innocent people were rare in that era.

Times are radically different now. What should you do? Much of it you know. Organize the vote. Engage in the political processes.

One thing to do that has not been touted much even in all the uproar is directly to confront the manufacturers of guns. Not the NRA. That group is a clever shield for the greedy gun runners. Here are the top gun corporations for you to challenge. Go after them directly: Sturm Ruger, Remington, Outdoor, Smith & Wesson, Glock, Sig Sauer, O.F. Mossberg & Sons, Savage, Springfield Armory, Beretta, Taurus International, Keystone, Sporting Arms, Kahr Arms, Barrett Firearms, Norinco, and Hi-Point Firearms. Start a new BDS movement — this time against the gun makers. Boycott, divestment, sanctions.

Does it seem like a lot to ask for you to go after each company? Perhaps it will be too much trouble? Going after the NRA is easier, isn’t it? Well, yes, that is what the sly gun makers want you to think. And if you do that, you are playing by their rules.

Stop. Think. Act. Make a lot of noise in the streets. Disrupt society. (Legally, of course, but loudly and vocally.) Overturn the calm of the status quo. Your lives and the lives of your friends are at stake.

Does Jewish tradition sanction this course of activist action? Absolutely. The Talmud teaches, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up against him first.” That slogan is our blanket manifesto for this kind of activism.

And given the facts, it’s not even as if you are planning a preemptive action. You are fighting an ongoing war against evil purveyors of violent weapons. Jewish law, and all human principles, sanction your resistance to the destructive armies of darkness.

Do you think I simplify the matter? Others will tell you that it is the insane actor that is at fault, not the maker of the weapon of mass death. Rubbish. That’s a smokescreen. We need to ban these terrible guns. Again and again and again. And to be clear about it, each time you get them off the market, the insidious suppliers will weasel them back on.

This lesson I have repeated many times to my students: After you accomplish your difficult goals for the good and the moral and the ethical actions in our world, you must never turn your back or become complacent. If you look away for a minute, the enemies of the virtuous will take back all the advantages that you accomplished.

You may already know that in 1994, with Ronald Reagan’s support, Congress banned high-capacity magazines as well as assault rifles. A decade later, incredibly and absurdly, lawmakers let this ban expire, under pressure from the gun-makers and the likes of the National Rifle Association.

My advice to you is engage in loud, deafening activism now, and maintain eternal persistent vigilance thereafter — that ought to be your plan.

Ah, but you may ask, what of the second amendment to the constitution? Well, try this. As George W. Bush once said (yes, about an entirely other issue), “The constitution is just a piece of paper.” What about the rights of gun collectors? And the right to form a well-regulated militia? Okay, here is the answer. Those outdated ideas are irrelevant. They are dangerous. They need to be ignored; they may need outright to be erased.

The declared essential American right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness transcends the obsolete entitlement to own a weapon of mass death.

That is my substantial Talmudic advice, my sane and ethical counsel. And it ought to be every citizen’s inalienable human entitlement. To reiterate: achieve your valiant goals by forceful means, and then guard your gains, never turn your back in complacency.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I love the Passover seder. Every year it’s an occasion to unite with family and celebrate our Jewish traditions. But I am confused by the Haggadah. It seems to be such a mixture of different content. I do not know where to start to understand its composition. What is your suggestion to help me work this out this year?

Haggadah Hunter in Hackensack

Dear Hunter,

Sociologists say that the Passover seder is the most widely observed Jewish practice in America. And you are right that few people comprehend the complexities of the Haggadah. It is a composite book of many layers that developed over a period of more than 2,000 years.

To be sure, there are hundreds of helpful editions of the book with commentaries, many published recently by local writers. But few of them expose the historical origins of the strata of the text.

Last year, to help resolve this issue, I republished the best work I knew of, the Polychrome Historical Haggadah.

This wonderful book was first issued by Rabbi Jacob Freedman of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1974. By putting each text-layer in a distinct color, he highlighted the seven different periods of the origins of the Haggadah. Biblical verses are black. Mishna passages are red. Talmud material is orange. Geonic passages are in green. Medieval additions are in brown. Modern insertions are in purple, and finally, contemporary additions like the Hatikvah, are printed in Israeli-flag blue.

With this book open in front of you, at a glance you can see when a passage originated. And because the text is in many colors, the individual paragraphs pop out at you, and you automatically pay more attention to them and their origins and their meanings.

In addition to the full multicolor pages of Hebrew text, this Haggadah also reprints incredible color illuminations from medieval Haggadah manuscripts.

There’s a classic example of what the German 15th century Haggadahs look like, and what the 14th century Spanish Haggadahs look like, and more. Jacob Freedman picked out vivid images that add a lot of life and more color to this lively Haggadah text.

When you see the diverse sources of the Haggadah in vibrant color, it helps makes the point that my teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, always said — the Haggadah is not just the simple retelling of a story.

He taught that the ritual recitation at the seder is a sacred act of talmud Torah, studying Torah in the rabbinic manner. When you finish at the end of the seder, you haven’t really told a sequential narrative story of the Exodus. But you have engaged in a wonderful midrashic learning session, combined with the recitation of meaningful prayers, and the singing of superlative (and some silly) songs.

All of this surrounds a sumptuous meal preceded by the sampling of symbolic delicacies, and let’s not forget the matzah too. No wonder the seder is so universally celebrated and loved.

The polychrome color highlighting of this edition clearly shows you all the alternating cadences of the work. I added to this edition a brief introduction that explains that the seder is like an opera with different arias. The Haggadah is the libretto.

If all this sounds enticing to you, I shamelessly and happily suggest that you order the Polychrome Historical Haggadah, readily available from Amazon. And may you have a joyous spiritually and intellectually satisfying Passover.

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, Halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish Liturgy, Jewish History and Religious Studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts (including the above-referenced Polychrome Historical Haggadah). Visit www.tzvee.com for links.

No comments: