Blood Upon Our House
Gun control should be the Jewish cause of our time.
Special To The Jewish Week
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“You shall not bring blood upon your house.” (Deuteronomy 24:8)

One morning a few weeks ago, my husband walked into our bedroom and said, “There’s been a shooting at University of Maryland.” Not yet knowing the details but knowing one fact — our daughter is a student there — I did what every parent would do. I closed my eyes, held my breath and called her cellphone. She answered. I breathed. She had just heard the news and was about to call to let us know she was OK.

But all is not OK — not OK on the UMD campus, where there have been five gun-related incidents around campus in the past three weeks – and not OK in this country where the gun control issue has been reduced to a matter of partisan politics and incivility. We can’t even talk about it. The “loaded” debates are blinding us to the stark reality: too many people with mental illness and criminal records have access to guns. The UMD graduate student shot and killed one student, wounded another and killed himself. Next to his body police found a bag containing a fully-loaded, semi-automatic Uzi, several rounds of ammunition, a machete and a baseball bat.

Jewish law forbids the selling of weapons to those suspected of using them for criminal ends: “One should not sell them either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one grind any weapon for them, nor may one sell them stocks, chains or ropes... (BT Avoda Zara 15b). But we don’t have to go that far. The Talmud admonishes us not to keep a bad dog or a broken ladder at home because these can accidentally endanger family or visitors. In the Talmud, a hole in a public space must be covered lest anyone come close and trip into it as a result. We must put a parapet around a flat roof in case someone comes too near the edge and falls off. Precautions focus our attention on the issue of safety in the home. A gun is an object that kills. It does not belong in a house.

You can counter this by marshaling the Talmudic permission to kill someone who is pursuing you in murder. In Exodus 22:1, we even grant permission to strike a thief dead who is discovered breaking into one’s home; the murderer is blameless. Since the thief would likely kill the homeowner to escape being found, the homeowner acted in self-defense. This is true for American law as well.

But if we go down this road, we have to imagine a world where everyone — even children — have to be armed to stop someone else who is armed. It’s not only about owning a gun. It’s about knowing how to use it expertly and having it at precisely the moment when bedlam strikes. “Ain l’davar sof,” we say in Hebrew. To this, there is no end. And in this new universe of added security with a gun in every hand becoming a new American mantra like Hoover’s chicken in every pot, everyone is a potential suspect. Is this the world we want?

Contrast this to a Talmudic passage about Shabbat (BT Shabbat 63a). One “must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, or spear.” The sacredness of Shabbat cannot be marred by any instrument of violence. One sage counters that these implements are merely decorative. But others disagree citing the famous verse from Isaiah: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-knives…” If Shabbat is truly holy to us then aspire to the vision of Isaiah. Put the weapons away. Many have the custom — as our family does — not to make a blessing on challah in the presence of the knife blade. Blessings and knives just don’t go together.

Gun control should be the Jewish cause of our time. Our children should inherit a world where they feel safe enough to walk on a college quad without fear. They should feel safe enough to go to elementary school. But we are simply not outraged. We have come to accept murder rampages as a reality of everyday American life. If we believe that every legal mandate and mitzvah must be put aside to preserve life, then we are not fighting hard enough. We have not internalized the most basic Jewish impulse — that we are created in God’s image and must preserve and sustain the godliness in all of humanity. We cannot stand by the blood of our brothers and sisters. Check Leviticus 19:16.

I write this not because I am a Democrat or a Republican, an NRA member or a pacifist. I write this because I am a mother, and I am a proud American, and I am a committed Jew. And I cannot bear to see any more blood upon our house.

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

Last Update:

09/01/2013 - 12:34

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"Jewish law forbids the selling of weapons to those suspected of using them for criminal ends... A gun is an object that kills. It does not belong in a house."

You mean like the illegal settlers on the West Bank? Whose homes are loaded with guns to the gills because of the circumstance they choose to put themselves in? Disgraceful, counter to Talmudic ethics, and disgusting that Israel lets itself be run and ruined by such violent stupidity.

Excellent piece. The plague of gun violence in our society is shameful, and as a people who so often have been in the vanguard of social change and conscience, Jews should indeed be at the forefront of reducing gun violence by reducing the prevalence of these killing machines: that is all that guns exist to do, kill. The manufacturers need to be held accountable for the death they enable in our homes and on our streets. The facts are clear and uncontrovertible: a gun in the home raises the chances of a person in that home dying from a gun shot. Do not listen to the absurd, delusional arguments of those who claim that Jews could have prevented the Shoah if they had firearms, or those who do not understand the facts regarding Israel - that it has one of the lowest rates of gun violence *because* it has some of the strictest gun control in the world.

The first thing that dictators do, when they take power, is to take every-one's guns away. This left the Jews in Germany helpless and later killed in the Gas chambers. Didn't we learn anything? The best thing to have when there is a bad guy with a Gun is a good guy with a Gun (NRA).

What we need is MORE Guns....Not less Guns.

This is insanity. You cannot overcome the power of the military with pea shooter or even a few Uzis. The power to change governments rests with millions of people in the streets demanding change. Recent history proves this. Not once has "a good guy with a gun" stopped militarism and related oppression.

Fantastic piece. That this has become so partisan is a disgrace.

Gun control is not a "Jewish" cause, any more than Obama is a Jewish leader. We are a religion, not a social club.

erica.. you of all people should be calling for more transparency when it come to abuse in the orthodox community... what is more likely.. your child to get sht or fondled by some power craven lunatic with the honorrific "Rabbi"?

I think the three published comments that preceded mine make good arguments. I can't say the same for Ms. Brown. In the very violent and criminal world in which we live, why would gun control be a Jewish issue? Who is going to protect the Jew, if not the Jew with a gun?

I really cannot comprehend the inability of my fellow Jews to accept the simple fact that some people choose to own the tools with which they can defend themselves if the need ever arises. It is truly amazing that some people believe it prudent to hand the keys to their very lives over to the government. Self defense, in the direst extreme, is not the same a vigilantism, a simple fact that unfortunately escapes many people, particularly Jews.

The vast, vast majority of deaths involving firearms involve either mental illness (ie suicides and mass killings by deranged individuals) or criminal activity. A miniscule portion are accidents. "Gun safety", the new catchword of gun control activists, really is not a problem that needs to be addressed (and the NRA does an excellent job of promoting gun safety). The studies that purport to show that a gun in the home is X times (the numbers vary widely) more likely to be used to kill a preson in the home are junk science plain and simple. The risk is almost completely dependent on who owns the gun.

So, let's focus on measures specifically tailored to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people and criminals. We actually have many, many such laws on the books and the first step is to make sure they are better enforced. The notion that preventing law abiding, mentally stable people from owning guns for the purpose of protecting themselves and their families simply is not a "Jewish value."

Would you say "A knife is an object that kills.It does not belong in the house".How will you cut your food?Just because you can't carry a weapon used as as part of the garb does not mean that if it is needed you cannot use it on Shabbat.You can even carry it on Shabbat if you need to.Chasidim in parts of Israel can be seen on Shabbat with Uzis and M-16s.I guess they feel that as long as those who wish them harm have "swords"they don't want a plowshare.The Talmud in tractate Avodah Zara bring down many banned items because of the harm they cause.We must sell a bear to the non-Jews who entertain themselves with them as they are harmful.We might not built for the non-Jews (Romans) items used for execution since their justice system was corrupt.But you will find no source that says that defending innocent life with anything you need is not allowed.Don't cut the Torah to fit the cover you wish to place on it.You are an obvious amateur in Talmud and rabbinic sources.Why show it off?

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