Last week, on October 1st, the national news broke over the latest in our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Ten people died as a result of the shooter on the Umpqua Community College campus, and over the course of the last week there has been a lot of buzz about the source of this violence and what we can do to address it. The United States is the only developed nation in the world with this kind of gun violence. According to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 72 mass shootings as since 1982. The definition of “mass shooting” here is that the killer worked alone (or in the case of Columbine, was the work of two otherwise “loners”), the violence was carried out in a public place, and the shooter took the lives of at least four people. So, for example, the shooting on the Northern Arizona University campus this morning would not be considered in these statistics, because “only” one person died. The next developed country with the second highest rate of gun violence, Switzerland (surprisingly), has about a third of the number of gun-related deaths per year that the U.S. has. While the U.S. makes up about 4% of the world’s population, it makes up about 42% percent of the world’s gun-owning civilian population. See a pattern yet?
It isn’t just about how many guns we own, or how the select few number of gun owners misuse them, the root of the violence is about the culture that promotes it. Plenty of gun-owners are safe users, but those who do seek to kill do so far too easily, and after the fact their actions are too often excused as “mental illness,” despite the fact that mentally ill people are statistically far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, and despite the fact that this diversion tactic away from the conversation on gun control also hasn’t led to helpful reform in providing access to mental health services for those who need it, either. The mental illness most of these killers are, or were, suffering from is toxic masculinity – the ideology that in order to “be a man” you must be aggressive, out of touch with your feelings, and feel comfortable wielding weapons and uncomfortable in a position of perceived powerlessness. Even those who were suffering from a diagnosed mental illness may not have sought the help they needed because of the desire to appear strong and masculine.
Of the 72 perpetrators of mass shootings, only one was a woman, and 63% were young white men. A 2013 study at the University of Washington looked at the disproportionate number of young, white, heterosexual men who committed mass shootings in the United States and found a correlation between “feelings of entitlement” and “homicidal revenge” against those perceived as being the source of the shortcomings on the man’s life. Misogyny and racism often play a part in these mass shootings. Just yesterday, I read of a teenager in Idaho who threatened to kill all the cheerleaders at his school because they wouldn’t send him nudes. We don’t know if he actually had access to guns or exactly how the authorities responded to his threats, but we know his friend was concerned enough of their veracity to report him, and the story became another in a national narrative of violent male entitlement.
Of the many responses that I’ve seen to the Umpqua Community College shootings, my favorite is one that has gone viral, though no one seems to know the original author:
"How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion — mandatory 48-hr waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he's about to do, a video he has to watch about the effects of gun violence... Let's close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles, take time off work, and stay overnight in a strange town to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun. It makes more sense to do this with young men and guns than with women and health care, right? I mean, no woman getting an abortion has killed a room full of people in seconds, right?"
Of course, reproductive rights and gun rights don’t really work as a side by side comparison in a meaningful legalistic way that might dictate how we approach reform on these issues, but the comparison here draws attention to the greater issue of what society expects of women and what society expects of men, and how we respond to the respective disappointments when either lets us down. From the earliest ages, too often little girls who behave aggressively or talk too much are stifled, told to sit down and be quiet, told “Act like a lady,” while little boys are encouraged to be louder and tougher and when they go too far, parents and teachers will say, “Boys will be boys.” In middle school, too often girls are sent to the principal’s office because their blouses don’t cover up their bra straps, but if a boy snaps that bra strap, well, “Boys will be boys.” And when those little girls and boys and middle schoolers are all grown up, how are they supposed to know that it is ok for women to speak up and speak out for their own safety and health care or that men shouldn’t behave aggressively and violently, when their whole lives they have heard, “Act like a lady,” but “Boys will be boys”?
Often we think of the extremists on these issues in terms of the Christian right, but as Jews who want to properly grapple with the issues on our own terms, we have a responsibility to acknowledge where some of this toxic masculinity and double standards between the sexes lies in our own tradition as well. This week’s parasha is Bereshit. I tend to think of the images of “The Fall” and Eve as the “mother of all sin” as very Christian concepts, and assumed it was due to some pervasive Christian ideology that we continue to frame our Genesis story this way, even occasionally as Jews. But after reading the analysis of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her book, The Murmuring Deep, I feel like I have finally seen clearly how much is in the text itself, and how so much of the double standards we continue to live with today really emanate directly out from Genesis two, the Adam and Eve story. In a key passage that has forever changed the way I read our texts, Zornberg says, “Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.” Zornberg also later points out that the serpent’s awareness of Eve’s weakness and strength in the arts of seduction was what so easily allowed him to manipulate her and Adam to transgress, validating the lasting view of Eve, “and through her, of all women,” as “sinister and serpentine.”
This is where I become certain that it is not the fault of pervasive medieval Christianity informing an uncomfortable understanding of this text. This is the basis of patriarchy and a culture in which victim blaming, objectification, excusing of male violence, and a denial of women’s voices are still pervasive even to this day and in the progressive Western world. This is the crux of our double standards and the promotion of toxic masculinity teaching men to stifle their feelings. From the beginning of time we have read and believed that a woman is simultaneously too weak to resist a male’s instruction or her own base instincts and is too seductive to expect a man to resist. It is her own fault she allows herself to be manipulated, but it’s also her fault that Adam allows himself to be manipulated by her. Women seeking abortions are told to take responsibility for their actions, but men who shoot people are given a pass for responsibility, and the men who defund women’s healthcare centers while maintaining loose gun laws that allow this reality say, “Stuff happens.” Act like a lady, but boys will be boys.
Although we may be fighting thousands upon thousands of years of this mentality, I think we are up to the challenge. It is past time to change our double standards and our view of autonomy for men and women. The parasha also contains a verse in which Adam proclaims Eve the “mother of all life,” and Zornberg points out that what we categorize as a “Fall” is really an outward motion: the expulsion from Eden into a new world. The new reality Eve has borne to us is harder, for sure, but also richer and fuller. It is only through obtaining the knowledge of good and evil did we really become fully human, in relationship with God. Instead of giving Eve all of the blame or credit, we should recognize that there are at least three “people” (though not human, the serpent is undoubtedly a person) with full agency participating in this text (possibly four; God’s role in causing this narrative to play out is a little more vague). It is in our grappling with good and evil and rights and privileges and law-making that we become fully human. I think it is absolutely time for us to promote a new, and just as legitimate, reading of this story, one in which we can establish that each and every person is accountable for his or her own actions, and each and every person should have access to that which they need to feel protected and cared for in this world without harming others. Maybe if we start at the source, we really can reframe our cultural shortcomings to become a truly equal and safe society for everyone. May we find holiness in our wrestling with difficult realities, may we find peace outside the Garden of Eden, and may our legislators find an agreement that will allow all Americans to feel secure. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.