Engel 1-17-2013

My Word: Model gun discussions on religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Orlando Sentinel, January 17, 2013)

By Rabbi Steven Engel

“Rabbi, the debate on guns — for or against?”

“That’s the wrong conversation,” I say.

Why? Because a valid conversation would include certain agreed-upon absolutes. Simply put, the discussion on violence and guns has thus far focused on the wrong principles.

As opposed to this, religion done right has been an effective and ongoing conversation for millennia. A good religious conversation has two absolutes: the greater good and the common good.

The greater good is our highest value, and in religion this means life itself. In my tradition, virtually every Jewish rite, ritual and even commandment can be disregarded in order to protect and save a life.

The common good means that each participant enters the conversation agreeing to give up something that he wants or needs for the good of the community.

The conversation on violence and guns should go the way of religion, beginning with the Second Amendment and the freedom to bear arms. This freedom is not absolute, as no freedom is. We have freedom of speech, but we cannot cry “fire” in a crowded movie theater or slander another person.

The freedom of assembly is not absolute either. A permit is often required to assemble, and it is prohibited to assemble in certain places. Even freedom of religion has limits. Individuals are protected to practice their religion freely, but government cannot promote any one religion. There are myriad Supreme Court cases that validate that no freedom is absolute, including the right to bear arms.

Imagine, if the conversation on guns and violence went the way of religion. When talking about violence and guns, we would agree that to protect and save life is paramount, trumping all other values. We would enter the conversation willing to give up something we want for the betterment of our society, realizing that we are all affected by what happens in society no matter how much we want to cloister ourselves away.

These are the absolutes that would make it a truly productive conversation. Perhaps the same religious principles should be applied to all of our political discourse. Who knows, we may actually be able to get something done.

Rabbi Steven Engel is senior rabbi of Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando and a member of the advisory board of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.