No Guns In Utopia, But What About Here And Now?
Wed, 12/26/2012
Special To The Jewish Week

As America continues to mourn the victims of the horrific slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the issue of gun control has predictably and rightfully been placed back at the center of public discourse. Within the Jewish community, the debate has centered on two distinct but related issues. The first concerns the State of Israel, namely, whether its relatively low rate of firearm deaths, despite the ubiquity of guns and the military in Israeli society, results from better gun laws or from a healthier cultural attitude toward weapons.

The second focus of the debate concerns the attempt to articulate a (or “the”) Jewish position on gun control. In addition to a host of major nondenominational organizations that issued statements advocating stricter controls in the wake of the Newtown shooting, national bodies associated with Reform and Conservative Judaism reiterated their longstanding gun control advocacy in specifically Jewish religious terms. The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) website also posted a set of traditional Jewish texts in the original and in English translation that frame Jewish attitudes toward weaponry and guide readers by asking key questions for each text.

On the other hand, no major Orthodox umbrella body issued a statement about gun control in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, or of the mass shootings in Aurora and Oak Creek either, for that matter. Chabad’s website has an article, posted in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, that takes an adversarial approach to the gun control issue, pitting traditional Jewish sources against one another and refraining from drawing conclusions on the debate. To be sure, individual rabbis from every denomination have expressed their opinions unambiguously through various media. Nevertheless, does the lack of a unified statement mean that Chabad and mainstream Orthodoxy remain ambivalent, agnostic, or internally divided on this issue? Are they perhaps concealing their true opinions?

Moreover, although the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism expressed the need for stricter gun control and has mobilized its youth wing, USY, to participate in a Dec. 26 Boston rally against gun violence, USY’s summer trip to Israel includes IDF-style training, including learning how to shoot an M-16, an automatic assault rifle. Does this indicate that USCJ’s public statements are somewhat hypocritical?

A closer look at one of the texts cited in many of these individual and organizational opinions illustrates just how fundamentally ambivalent about weapons Jewish tradition really is. The Mishna (Shabbat 6:4) states:

“A man must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, mace or spear; if he does so he is liable. Rabbi Eliezer says: they are ornaments to him. But the Sages say: they are nothing but shameful, as it is stated (Isaiah 2:4): ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor shall they train for war anymore.’”

This Mishna discusses an application of the rule that one may not carry objects on the Sabbath in a public area. Clothing and adornments are excepted from this rule. According to Rabbi Eliezer, weapons are an adornment for a man, much as an item of jewelry. The Sages, however, disagree: in the messianic era there will be no more weapons, and thus even today they are abhorrent.

At first glance, Rabbi Eliezer would certainly seem to be correct. Weapons have long been used as symbols of rank and status. Why should the law not recognize the reality that in the Mishna’s time, and today, weapons have aesthetic value in addition to functional value? The Sages, though, dispute this law by protesting against any culture that glorifies weaponry. They anticipated the messianic era envisioned by the Jewish prophets, in which war would be abolished and its implements used for entirely peaceful ends.

Yet even the Sages do not deny the necessity of weapons in the pre-messianic era. As abhorrent as weapons are, the Sages do not forbid handling them on Shabbat in a private domain, and certainly not during the week. Implements of war, according to the Sages and the dominant voice of Jewish tradition, are despicable. They may be necessary, but only when justified on purely functional grounds, not aesthetic ones.

This ethos remains strong in Israeli law and culture. Israeli gun licenses are based on justification, and its rate of rejection of gun permit applications is the highest in the world, according to Janet Rosenbaum, a professor of epidemiology at SUNY Downstate’s School of Public Health.

Moreover, the IDF’s ethical doctrine includes a value called Tohar Ha-neshek, or Purity of Arms. It states:

“IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity, and property.”

This doctrine is the direct descendant of the Sages’ deep ambivalence as reflected in the Mishna. Perhaps, then, advocating stricter gun control is entirely consistent with having teenagers train to handle weapons alongside the IDF.

Elli Fischer is a writer and translator in Israel.

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Israelis have the correct attitude toward guns -- they are a tool, meant for a specific purpose, which is to protect life. They are not an end onto themselves, they are not objects of worship, they are not to be glorified any more than a pitchfork or a telephone is glorified.

A telephone, a pitchfork and a gun are simply tools. They should be used for their intended purpose. If someone intends to use any of them to endanger their neighbors, that person should be stopped or, even better, prevented from acquiring such tools since they are not capable of handling them safely.

This is an intelligent and balanced approach to the use of firearms and it is *utterly* lacking in the American debate. On the one hand, you have people who find guns to be inherently bad and on the other, you find people who believe them to be inherently good -- almost holy. Our tradition in its wisdom holds the middle ground. Guns have no intrinsic value. The value is the protection of innocent life. Our job as Jews is to do everything possible to protect innocent life. If using a gun furthers that cause, then by all means, we must use it. But someone like Nancy Lanza, whose irresponsible ownership of guns endangered her neighbors, has no support from the Talmud and should have no support from modern Jews. We should pass laws to try to reform American gun culture and make it more like Israel.

American Jews must do everything we can to learn more about Israeli attitudes towards firearms and to bring this message of balance back to our country of residence. The USY trip is part of that process and there is no hypocrisy. There is balance.

If only the NRA would hire Israelis to teach its courses and if only our anti-gun lobbies would hire Israelis to speak to the American public, I believe we could put this ridiculous nonsense to rest quickly.

On the USCJ website, they clearly note their position on gun control, as evidenced by "Stop sales of assault weapons for non-combat use"

Does that not contradict allowing students on their summer program to shoot automatic assault rifles for non combat use? Does that program really consider itself training students for "combat use" of assault weapons?

There's a difference between gun "control" and "violence". The rally USY held today was against gun VIOLENCE, this not very hypocritical, as in fact supporting the IDF position and teaching responsibility

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