While I was recently giving a class at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York City on the topic of halachic approaches to weapons I asked this group of 25 people (most between 50-65 years old) how many of them owned guns. I expected 1 or 2 hands to emerge but was astonished to find that about 50-60% admitted to having a gun at home. Shortly after, I learned that there is an Orthodox organization now training Orthodox Jews to use guns and to bring them to synagogue as a form of “protection.” If the religious Jewish community in America has joined the consumers of guns then we must also enter into the national gun discourse.
Our Jewish perspective on the controversial issue of gun control and gun rights cannot be based only on the interpretation of the Second Amendment. Rather we must explore the sources to understand our responsibilities as Jewish Americans.
There is clearly a case to make for gun rights in Jewish law. To start, one is not culpable for killing a pursuer (rodef) who has intent to kill (Exodus 22:1). Some halakhic authorities go further and say that the homeowner is obligated to kill the pursuer (Rambam Hilkhot Rotzaiach V’Shmirat Ha’Nefesh, 10:11). The right to self defense is a Jewish priority.
However, this Rambam is not the only Jewish consideration on this issue. Halakhah also requires that we consider practical consequences to ensure that we protect the dignity of human life. We must consider the facts of our current society. Access to weapons makes it easier to fulfill crimes of passion, suicides, and tragic accidents in the home. In 2005, for example, over 30,000 people died as a result of a firearm in the United States; suicides accounted for 55 percent of this total, while accidental gun deaths accounted for 3 percent. Many deaths could be prevented if access to a gun wasn’t made so easy.
Advocates for gun control are not suggesting that we abolish the rights of gun ownership. They are merely suggesting that more precautions be put in place such as safety mechanisms, no-gun zones, a ban on big-volume magazines that allow for so many bullets to be released at once, and the enforcement of stronger background checks.
I believe this is the responsible position that Jewish law supports. With certain protections, we can work to prevent events like the January 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, and countless homicides, suicides, and accidents that occur in America each year.
We know that Jewish law requires that we make our home and our property safe (even for intruders): “If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if one falls from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). Rambam extends this to other unsafe things that one owns, such as a swimming pool or a tall stairway (Hilkhot Rotzeiach 11:1-5). A gun certainly falls into this category.
While we must address the societal demand for weapons, Jewish law reminds us that the supply of weapons is also something we must deal with. “You shall not curse the deaf, and you shall not place a stumbling block (i.e., something dangerous) before the blind; you shall fear your G-d – I am the Lord,” (Leviticus 19:14). The great Jewish code of law, the Shulchan Aruch, explains that we must actively seek out and destroy dangerous things in society: “And for every stumbling block that is a danger to someone’s life, there is a positive commandment to remove it and to destroy it from among us and to take good caution; as it says: ‘You shall guard your lives’ (Deuteronomy 4:9). And if you don’t remove the stumbling block that brings danger you have neglected a positive mitzvah,” (Choshen Mishpat 427:8). In the hands of people who are mentally unfit or untrained, guns are “stumbling blocks;” they become tools for violence against others and self-inflicted violence. Using these laws and explanations, I believe Jewish law requires us to ensure the safe supply of weapons.
Rabbi J. David Bleich, Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University, took a firm stance: “Jewish law recognizes that indiscriminate sale of weapons cannot fail to endanger the public. The daily newspaper confirms this deep-seated distrust far more often than is necessary. As the bearers of an ageless moral code, Jews ought to be in the vanguard of those seeking to impress upon our legislators that handguns are indeed ‘stumbling blocks’ which must not fall into the hands of the ‘blind.’ Criminals do commit crimes, and it is precisely because ‘morally blind’ criminals are disposed to crime that Judaism teaches that it is forbidden to provide them with the tools of their trade.”
The midrash condemns a land filled with weaponry (Bereshit Rabbah 21:13). The Rabbis, commenting on the words, “God placed at the East of the Garden of Eden the Cherubim and the flaming sword,” teach, “At the East of the Garden of Eden at the very spot where stood the Cherubim with the flaming sword – there hell (Gehinnom) was created.”
The Mishnah describes weapons as “shameful” things to be seen with (Shabbat 63a). One should be embarrassed to own a weapon, even in the case that they must.
The issue of guns is not only a domestic political issue. It is also an issue of foreign policy. Who are America and Israel morally responsible to prevent from having dangerous weapons? The Gemarah says that it is forbidden to sell weapons to any idolater and some rabbis went so far as to say that it is forbidden to sell them even weapons of defense (Avodah Zara 15b). We must review American and Israeli arms-policies to ensure that we are living up to our responsibilities. Then we can truly heed the cry of the prophets, to ensure that “nation shall not lift sword against another nation and we should no longer know war,” (Michah 4:4).
In District of Columbia v. Heller, the recent monumental Supreme Court decision which struck down a DC ban on hand guns, the logic of original intent was implemented. While the vote ended in a 5-to-4 victory for gun rights, it was oddly 9-to-0 in a victory of original intent interpretation over consequentialist interpretation. Our job as Jews is more complicated. While we are concerned with the intention of law, we are also concerned with the consequences of law. We must assess whether having fewer guns in the world leads to more death, and then we must follow our holy Torah to “choose life.”
I understand this is a complex issue that evokes strong feelings. I don’t imagine I will convince Jews like those I spoke to at the New York City synagogue to sell their weapons, however I hope that Jews will, keeping with their religious responsibility, enter the political discourse and work to make society safer while keeping the essence of the Second Amendment intact.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek <http://www.utzedek.org/> , the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice <http://www.jewishsocialjustice.com/> : A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012.
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