To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
Last week a deranged individual walked into a house of prayer and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing eleven people and wounding six. President Trump called it “an act of pure evil.”
As a rabbi I must disagree; I do not believe in the existence of pure evil. Ancient Jewish wisdom describes a universe governed by pure goodness, a beneficent source of mystery we experience as love, compassion, wisdom and inspiration. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson articulated the quintessentially American belief that we are all created equal, and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” gifts of a good and generous God.
In Judaism we believe evil is essentially impurity, the polluting quality of wrongful action. The Hebrew Bible describes the Garden of Eden, meaning “Garden of Delight.” In the midst of Eden stand two trees: the Tree of Life, and another commonly translated as the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But the Hebrew adjective translated as “evil” means simply “bad.” So we eat fruit from that tree to discern good from bad, to learn to how conduct ourselves and our society. It’s good to fund schools, clinics and hospitals; it’s bad to sell civilians assault weapons. It’s good to use our resources wisely; it’s bad to destroy our environment. Any child can understand this.
The perpetrators of hate killings are not controlled by “pure evil.” Their deadly actions are primed by movies and videos they watch, books and blogs they read, violent images they see on television, and hate speech they follow. The mockery Mr. Trump employs to denigrate others is itself an evil influence on our social discourse and a betrayal of millions of good-hearted Americans who voted for him in the hope of positive change. The dehumanization of immigrants contributed to last Saturday’s mass killing. Prosecutors say the gunman was angry that a Jewish organization is helping refugees and immigrants assimilate into their new life here. His hate is not reserved for Jews; he has plenty of contempt for all “others.”
In response to the massacre President Trump suggested that synagogue leaders were to blame for not arming themselves. Once again, his solution to gun violence: more guns. Our nation already has the highest gun ownership per capita in the world. Mr. Trump, America is a nation of law and order. Most of us pay our taxes and we expect our government to legislate wisely and provide essential services. Sensible laws for gun ownership and strong enforcement will eventually lead us back to order. Should our police men and women have to face off against assault rifles? The federal government’s failure to renew an effective 10-year ban on those weapons in 2004 was a breach of public trust, benefiting only weapon manufacturers and the politicians who take their donations.
Since the shooting I’ve received many calls and gestures of sympathy and support. It’s comforting to know people all over the country are praying for the safety of the Jewish community. Yes, this is a time for prayers, for responding to hate with love. Eureka psychologist and spiritual advisor Teresa Von Braun said to me, “There is an energy of evil that has been generated on this planet by people who have done things that are so terribly bad.” Yes, let us reach out to one another and pray to all we hold sacred to disperse the evil and the violence we have brought upon ourselves by choosing bad over good.
And this is also a time for action. We must not follow Mr. Trump into his dystopian vision of an America of teachers, rabbis, ministers, and doctors loading up their guns as they head to work each day. We must chart a course to a safer society, no matter how long it takes to get there. To legally drive a car in this country, you need a license, which requires studying regulations and passing the written exam and driving test. Why all the formalities? Because operating a car is inherently dangerous to yourself and to others. Clearly the same should be required for owning guns. In the wake of another heartbreaking tragedy, I’m working and praying for common sense gun laws to stem the tide of suicides, homicides, and massacres.
Rabbi Naomi Steinberg has been the rabbi at Temple Beth El since her ordination in 2004, and was the congregation’s student rabbi for several years before that. She also serves the southern Humboldt Jewish community at B’nai Ha-Aretz in Redway. She and her husband have lived in Carlotta for more than 35 years.