Tearing Down the Deadly Idolatry of Guns (Vayera)

"Tearing Down the Deadly Idolatry of Guns" was written by Rabbi Howard J. Holdsmith of Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester, Rye, NY. This piece was printed in All Who Can Protest: A Rabbinic Call to End the American Gun Violence Epidemic (2022), edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, and Rabbi Michelle Dardashti.

Converted to source sheet in preparation for Rabbis Against Gun Violence Shabbat on Nov. 12, 2022 (Parshat Vayera). For more information visit @RabbisAgainstGunViolence on Facebook.

(יב) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

(12) “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him...”

(כא) וּמִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֥ לֹא־תִתֵּ֖ן לְהַעֲבִ֣יר לַמֹּ֑לֶךְ וְלֹ֧א תְחַלֵּ֛ל אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃
(21) Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech, and do not profane the name of your God: I am יהוה.

One of Judaism’s great innovations was the elimination of child sacrifice. A common practice in the ancient Near East, the idolaters and pagans of the area believed that killing their children in the name of their gods would bring water for their crops, safety from invading armies, and prosperity in all their endeavors. We cannot imagine that individual parents felt good about sacrificing one of their children, but we know that the society as a whole accepted the practice as a “cost of doing business,” that they believed the sacrifice of a few children was worth the benefit of Molech’s beneficence to the society.

As we read each year on Rosh Hashanah, when the angel tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac to God, Judaism set itself apart. Judaism declared that no cause was worth the death of an innocent child – even in the name of God. Later in the Torah, our tradition decried the idolatrous child sacrifices of the Canaanites to their god Molech. The ancient Israelite king Josiah destroyed the temple to Molech that was located in the valley outside of Jerusalem’s city walls known as the Valley of Hinnom. In Hebrew it was called Gai Ben Hinnom which was later rendered Gehinnom or Gehenna in both late rabbinic literature and in the Greek of the Christian Bible. Gehinnom came to be equated with hell. What was the definition of hell? The place where children are sacrificed by their society.

Gai Ben Hinnom is now in Uvalde, Texas and Santa Fe High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Sandy Hook Elementary. Gai Ben Hinnom – hell – is now every place where American children have died as sacrifices on the altar of extremist interpretations of the Second Amendment. In our failure to address gun violence, our society has made it clear that we accept the sacrifice of children to maintain an extremist, permissive implementation of the Second Amendment.

The range of policy actions that can be taken to protect our children - to protect all of us - from gun violence is well known. My message today is not a policy prescription. But I do know, for example, that many people in Israel carry guns and that their gun laws keep their citizens safe from this type of mass casualty shooting. And, I know that we will only be able to achieve this kind of sanity once we take after King Josiah and smash the extremist altars to the Second Amendment that regularly accept the sacrifice of American children. King Josiah smashed those ancient altars with fierce political will and by building the support of the citizens of ancient Israel. Surely we can demand the same from our elected officials and from our fellow citizens.

Today in Gai Ben Hinnom in Jerusalem is an arts cinema, a boutique hotel, an outdoor concert venue, and a lovely park. The place that inspired the notion of hell itself has been transformed into a place for rest and beauty, a place that brings people together in peace. I pray that one day, we in America find a way to smash the altars of child sacrifice and replace the fear they inspire with beauty, rest, unity, and peace.

כן יהי רצון