Tag Archives: giffords

Louder Than Words

By Daniel Kieval

In the wake of January 8’s horrific shooting in Tucson, Arizona, attention was rightly given to Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ 20-year-old intern, Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez calmly and heroically rushed toward, not away from, the victims of the gunfire, and his immediate care of Giffords is credited with helping to save her life. Meanwhile, far more discussion concerned Sarah Palin’s and President Obama’s contrasting speeches in response to the incident. It seems that words, especially those of politicians, ultimately provide more fuel for the relentless 24-hour media than actions, even exceptional ones.

Jewish tradition, on the other hand, offers a different perspective. Judaism is a religion of action; thought and learning are encouraged and even glorified, but the tradition also teaches that “lo hamidrash hu ha’ikar elah hama’aseh”—the main principle is not study but practice. Thus, when the Israelites receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, they famously declare “na’aseh v’nishmah”—we will do and we will hear. They commit first to acting in accordance with God’s commandments and only afterwards to understanding them. This is interpreted as a demonstration of the Israelites’ extreme trust and also a delineation of Judaism’s priorities.

In Judaism, therefore, there is no central dogma, no list of statements one must believe in order to be Jewish (even the supposed dogma of belief in God is contradicted by today’s existence of Jewish atheists). Instead there is a list of actions: the mitzvot, the commandments. To believe in them as one performs them is a bonus, but the main principle is the actions themselves (See Moment’s “Ask the Rabbis” section on the Ten Commandments). Likewise, Jews have no need to confess “sinful thoughts.” Our thoughts cannot be sinful because they are not under our control; they fly in and out of our minds as they please. What we can control, and what we are therefore held accountable for, is how we choose to act in response to those thoughts.

There is a flip side to this point, too. Just as negative thoughts do not make us into bad people, we cannot fulfill our duty to be good people by positive thoughts alone. It is usually easier to identify the right actions than to actually perform them. In Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah, to give grudgingly, with negative feelings, is the lowest form of giving. Yet to have just and charitable thoughts but not give does not even make the list; this is not tzedakah at all. Thought can enhance action but is not a substitute for it.

In a world today riddled with crises, from the environmental to the social to the political, it often seems as though the effort put into thought and discussion far exceeds that put into action. Giffords’ intern Hernandez serves as an inspiration and example to reverse this trend. We would do well to listen to him and to centuries of Jewish thought when they tell us that in the end, what will truly matter is not what we thought or even said about the problems of the world, but what we did about them.

After Giffords Attack, Searching for Compassion

By Steven Philp

Addressing nationwide concern for Representative Gabrielle Giffords, doctors have expressed hope for her recovery despite having suffered a gunshot wound to the head. According to an article posted by Haaretz, the bullet passed through the left side of the brain, including areas that control speech function; her doctors have warned that extensive damage in these locations could preclude a full recovery from the incident. “There are obvious areas of our brain that are less tolerant to intrusion,” said Dr. Michael Lemole. “I don’t want to go down the speculation road but at the same time we’re cautiously optimistic.” Although in critical condition Giffords has been able to respond to simple commands, such as holding up two fingers when prompted.

Yet optimism is a precious commodity given the nature of the shooting, which left 18 injured and six dead, including nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. In an interview with Haaretz, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim expressed her dismay, stating that both the Jewish and non-Jewish community of Tucson is “shocked and horrified, and completely saddened…We don’t know all the details, but it is incomprehensible.” Giffords has attended Congregation Chaverim for over ten years. Although authorities have yet to shed light on the motives of the shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, some have pointed to possible anti-Semitism. According to an interview with Associated Press – conducted on condition of anonymity – a government official familiar with the case said that local authorities have been pursuing a link between Loughner and American Renaissance, an anti-government group associated with the white supremacist organization New Century Foundation. Both groups are known for their anti-Semitic and anti-government rhetoric, which is reflected in some of Loughner’s online video and blog posts.

However some see these potential motives as part of a larger problem, pointing to the prevalence of aggressive – if not overtly militaristic – rhetoric in national debate. According to the Guardian, Giffords has been repeatedly targeted by the Tea Party after voting for healthcare reform and vocally opposing Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. Tucson sheriff Clarence Dupnik expressed his concern that “growing hate and anger” toward the government, including calls to armed resistance, played a role in the shooting.  Similarly, the National Jewish Democratic Council released a statement that read, “Many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse.” Called a traitor to her country, Gifford was included on a “target list” posted by Sarah Palin’s PAC during the midterm election which marked key races with gun sights. Although the graphic has since been pulled from the Web site, news sources like the Huffington Post still carry the image.

Yet some continue this violent rhetoric, including the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which came in to the national spotlight several years ago through its anti-gay and anti-Semitic protests. Given their record, it is unsurprising that they would target the victims of the Arizona shooting. According to a flyer posted on their Web site and reposted on the Huffington Post, the WBC writes, “THANK GOD FOR THE SHOOTER – 6 DEAD!” They continue, stating that the deaths are divine retribution for the federal court case that was brought against the WBC for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers.

However, there is a counter-message. Media figures such as Keith Olbermann have come out against the hate-filled rhetoric, asking for an overhaul of national debate and the movement away from violent and incendiary language. This is reminiscent of a voice that emerged from the Jewish community several months ago. As part of a new campaign against “fear-based politics,” Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR – a progressive Jewish community based in Los Angeles, CA – posted a video calling for “radical empathy.” She reminds us that, as Jews, we understand vulnerability. Yet we can use our collective memory of suffering to recognize the rhetoric of fear, and to counter it through absolute and unfaltering compassion. Al tirah, “fear not,” reads the Torah; Rabbi Brous looks to this reminder, a direct command from G-d to face adversity with conviction. Instead of pointing our indignation at Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, the Westboro Baptist Church, or – as difficult as this may be – Jared Loughner, we need to ask questions. What are they afraid of? Why? And how can we – as Jews, as Americans, and as people of conscience – meet their fears with the empathy needed to soften their hearts?