Sunday, February 2, 2014

Would God Want to Live Among Us Today? Delivered Shabbat Terumah 2/1/2014

            V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham: Make me a holy sanctuary so that I may dwell among [you], God says in our Shabbat reading, Parashat Terumah.
          Though so often the one pushing for the historical view, I ask us, for a moment this Shabbat, to set aside our critical thinking of the Torah.   As progressive Jews who view Torah as a human endeavor, this statement regarding God’s demand to build a house so that God can remain in our midst must be viewed as our human desire for God to dwell among us (and in the context of the Hebrew bible, specifically the Israelites’ desire – need – for God to be among them).  But setting that academic understanding aside, this verse begs an important question: 
Would God be so eager to dwell among us today?  Would God care to live here b’tocheinu, among us, in America -- even if we built a tabernacle as spectacular as the one outlined in our Torah?
I dare say not.
Last Shabbat offers a prime example.  When are we going to get it through our heads that we have a gun violence problem in this country?  I know – you are sick of hearing me talk about it.  I’m sick of having to.  
In discussing, unpacking, if you will, the horror of such an event that hit this time so close to home with our confirmation students on Sunday, we kept coming back to two significant points.  The first, which came entirely from our insightful fifteen-year olds, was a lesson:  that we make a commitment to valuing life, to living each day as fully as we can without being paralyzed by this harsh reality of gun violence in our society.  Admittedly, no easy task without some level of distancing and denial.
The second point was a reflection of our frustration: is it going to have to hit this close to home for every single American before we seriously address the problem?  Let’s not forget the message of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, The Diameter of a Bomb.  The impact extends far beyond the immediate range of the violent act, in this case, bullets shot; it extends to all humanity, to eternity, ultimately to a place where there is no God.  We are the only ones who can fix it.  And, we must if we want our world to be worthy of God’s presence among us.
Those who continue to favor limits on gun control legislation insist on a fundamentalist and presumptive reading of the second amendment of our American Constitution.  Even the p’shat, the first glance, the plain meaning, of that singular verse is less than clear, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
In order to understand this short but now highly discussed amendment, we must dig below the p’shat.  Arguably, we must approach it in much the same way that I typically demand we approach Torah.  What was James Madison’s, the editor of the first ten amendments, primary intention?  Did he intend the words “militia” and “people” to be interchangeable?   Was the intention of not infringing the right to bear arms viewed as a necessity in order to create this “well-regulated militia”?  How else would this militia be created if not from the citizens?  And, what, exactly, was meant by “militia” in that day; is there a modern parallel?  What was the historical context to which he was responding, and was there any debate? And, perhaps most importantly and central to our country’s gun control debate: did he, or any of our country’s founders, imagine it to be an eternal and infallible statement?  I imagine not.
A couple of things history makes clear:  one, the concept of a “Bill of Rights” is steeped, not in specifically American values, but rather has its roots in England’s Magna Carta which provided individual protections against royal misuse of power.  Arguing that it is somehow “anti-American” to debate one of the Bill of Rights is ignoring history.  Second, these first ten amendments were not universally celebrated in their day even by America’s founders.  Maybe not as partisan as today’s Affordable Health Care Act, but the Bill of Rights faced indifference and hostility in its development and passage. 
There may have been a time in history when an armed citizenry made sense.  It is clear to me, however, both as an American and as a Jew, that it doesn’t make sense today.  We are not in the midst of forming a new country with no formally established armed forces or protective agencies.   A generalized arming of our citizens today does not lead to an honoring of life or an increased quality of life, rather it feeds a paranoid mindset where we expect violence, don’t trust those whose job it is to protect us from said violence, and ultimately confront that violence with more violence.  Haven’t we had enough?  Other countries, Australia, for example, offer an ideal towards which to strive.  And ideal where guns are not forbidden, but they are not so easily attainable.  Let me repeat that: An ideal where guns are not forbidden but are not so easily attainable.  An ideal where the possibility of destruction is matched with a wise caution with regard to distribution.
 What is holding us back?  A fear of our individual rights being trampled on? An attachment to words written in a very different time to very different circumstances?  A fear of being un-American if we aren’t protecting our homes and loved ones with armed force?
Back to our Torah portion, Terumah.  It appears at first glance that God is demanding a grand palace in which to abide among us.  I read something far greater than a physical structure in this demand.  Building this mikdash, this holy space, requires citizens whose generous spirit moves them to contribute.  It requires communal cooperation and presumably an atmosphere where disagreements are resolved in a non-violent and productive manner.  It requires that instead of holing up in our individually protected fortresses, we work together toward building and creating a safe shared space.  It requires forsaking our own needs, at times, for the benefit of others, for the benefit of the community. 
Does God want to dwell among us? Certainly not as long as a constant, and possibly concealed specter of violence stands in the way of creating mikdash, safe and sacred space for all of us.