Monday, December 17, 2012

Federally Mandated Firearm Liability Insurance

In the wake of last Friday's unspeakable tragedy, I like many have been moved to think about the politics surrounding gun ownership and the policy problems at the heart of the issue. The legal and social forces impacting this question are intensely complex, but the need is so urgent that I hope we may see forceful and rapid action to reform our gun law regime in significant terms. In that spirit, I would like to add my voice to others who have proposed a policy solution that might form a departing point of consensus over a fraught issue: the adoption of a federal mandate requiring liability insurance for the purchase and ownership of a firearm.

First, let me address the underlying principle of such a proposal. The logic of requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance is the same as that which applies to users of automobiles. Right now the rights of gun ownership are private, but the costs of gun accidents, injuries, and violence are socialized. This is a fundamentally unfair situation. The second amendment guarantees that gun ownership is a right, not a universal actuality on the terms most convenient to those desiring weapons. If the second amendment allows that every citizen may be compelled to pay the fair market value of a weapon, it also allows that each gun owner may contribute toward private funds mitigating the social costs of gun use.

This policy would naturally serve as a "gateway" impediment that would deter gun sales, and those who oppose gun law reform might argue that it would keep firearms out of the hands of those who "need" them. This is a complicated point of contention, but it in no way rises to the level of a disqualifying objection. The potential benefits of such a policy are so salient that any ancillary "down side" could be remediated by, for example, the passage of subsidies to make coverage accessible to small business owners and low-income citizens who might otherwise be blocked from gun ownership.

In social policy terms, this measure would be a versatile means to use the forces of the free market to foster gun safety and responsible gun use. Actuarial studies could determine the level of liability coverage that was optimal for all gun owners, and private insurers could be relied upon to sell such coverage to individual gun owners at the fair market cost. Naturally, gun owners who could demonstrate that they had adequate gun safety training, had laid plans for the secure storage of their weapons, and had purchased weapons whose design minimized social hazards (e.g. "smart guns" with private locks or designed to be operable only by their owner) would attain the most favorable rates of coverage from private insurers. Such an insurance regime would not only influence gun owners, but gun manufacturers and retailers as well, incentivizing them to adopt best standards and practices that promote gun safety and security in the community at large. Thus with a minimum of government intervention behaviors could be widely fostered that would be socially constructive and might deter tragedies like the most recent sorrow in Newtown.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hanukkah and Christmas

The proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas gives it a special place in the yearly calendar for American Jews, one fraught with opposing pressures and ambivalent sentiments. On the one hand Hanukkah is a joyous festival and an opportunity to participate in the spirit of the all-consuming "holiday season." On the other hand, that very impulse raises guilty feelings of assimilation, imitative consumerism, and diluted Jewish identity. While Christians (or some of them) fret about the secularization of Christmas, Jews are prone to fret about the "Christmasization" of Hanukkah. This anxiety is exemplified by Rabbi Wayne Dosick, who in his text Living Judaism insists, "Chanukah and Christmas have nothing in common, other than they are celebrated at the same time of year. Chanukah does not need to be compared to any other religious observance or celebrated in any out-of-proportion way (p. 154)." Similarly, in a recent piece in the New York Times, Hilary Krieger laments that because Hanukkah has "morphed into 'Christmas for Jews,'" the holiday has been sanitized of all its associations with conflict and "Jewish survival."

Any genuinely historical perspective on comparative religion, however, must acknowledge that the Hanukkah and Christmas festivals are intimately linked- instances of "spiritual mirroring" across a sectarian boundary that has often been more porous than many adherents on either side would allow. If today Hanukkah has become "Christmas for Jews," in earlier times Christmas was undoubtedly "Hanukkah for Christians." This may seem absurd- what can the commemoration of a child's birth have to do with a story of bloodshed and war? Yet this perceived asymmetry is an anachronism born of our modern sensibilities.

To Judeans of the classical era the Hanukkah and Christmas stories were structurally parallel. The story of the Maccabees ends with the revival of Jewish kingship- the reemergence of an independent Jewish throne for the first time since the Babylonian exile. It was this miracle that the Hanukkah festival commemorated centuries before anyone recorded the story of the lamp and the oil familiar to us today. The story of Christmas, similarly, ends with the appearance of a new King of Israel. The visit of the Magi to the manger with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is a scene of coronation. The placing of the Christmas holiday in close proximity to Hanukkah reinforced the dynastic themes of Christ's messianic status. Jesus was the natural extension of the Maccabees, the man who would fulfill Jewish hopes in a more absolute and permanent manner.

Here, one might argue, the similarity ends. If Christ was a King, he was one in a very different mold than Judah Maccabee. He raised no army, drove out no conquerors, and ended condemned on a cross. Yet at this juncture we may perceive that the "Christmasization" of Hanukkah began long before anyone sat a child on Santa's lap. For if Christmas radically de-emphasizes the political and military aspects of Christ's "kingship," over time Hanukkah similarly turned away from triumphalism toward more exclusively spiritual themes. The Talmud makes no mention of Hanukkah except in connection to the miracle of the oil, transmuting the holiday from a celebration of human victory into a commemoration of a divine wonder. Hanukkah became, over time, the "Festival of Lights," just as Jesus, as messiah, was epitomized as "The Light of the World." Both Christmas and Hanukkah evolved to commonly turn the worshiper away from kingship understood in terms of blood and iron and toward a contemplation of light, that immaterial substance most evocative of the Transcendent.

It might be tempting to conclude that both Hanukkah and Christmas convey a deliberate and inspirational message of peace, but a more pragmatic reading of the holidays' parallel histories suggests itself. Jews were compelled, in diaspora, to relinquish the dynastic hopes embodied in the Hanukkah festival. If the continuity of Judaism had required the revival of Jewish political institutions the community would have perished, thus survival necessitated finding a more spiritual foundation upon which to build an enduring Jewish identity. Similarly, in their early days Christians were faced with a Roman authority they could not hope to contest militarily. The practicability of Jesus' salvational message thus hinged on finding some way to distinguish Christ as "king" from the Caesars with whom he could not materially contend. Christmas and Hanukkah evolved toward one-another because both Jews and Christians needed to distinguish between the power inherent in Light and the power inherent in Iron.

This historical reading, though less romantic, may be edifying for us today in its own way.  The story of Hanukkah's and Christmas's parallel evolution conveys a lesson about religious life that certainly applies to our own time. When as human beings we seek spiritual fulfillment in concrete, material achievements- the building (or destruction) of a particular edifice, the enforcement of particular rules, the ascendancy of a particular lineage- the effect is generally ephemeral and oftentimes tragic. When, however, we locate spiritual realization in more abstract and universal realms- light, harmony, peace- the effects are generally more enduring and more consistently positive. In a world embroiled by bloody disputes over sacred boundaries and sectarian divisions, we might pause to draw a lesson from our collective past.

[This post was inspired by discussions in a class on Judaism at Congregation B'nai Israel (Rumson, New Jersey), led by Rabbi Jeff Sultar. The opinions and errors, however, are exclusively my own]