Jews and Guns

By Alex Joffe
Friday, August 17, 2012

Two mass shootings in the past month—in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin—have focused American attention once again on the issue of guns.  Are guns a Jewish issue? Jewish organizations have expressed their opinions by their statements and their silence.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has decried the recent shootings and called for “common-sense gun control laws.”  A blog on the Center’s website clarifies what the RAC thinks this means.  “The most effective way to prevent gun deaths,” it says, “is to reduce the number of guns.”  An earlier editorial by a RAC associate director went further.  It decried the prospect of an armed and balkanized American society—and derided the argument that “only when Jews have guns have they been able to preserve Jewish honor and dignity.”  The RAC’s answer to threats that Jews might face is tikkun olam.

The president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly made a more interesting comment on the shootings.  He condemned them, but also noted “the fragility of the fundamental social contract that binds us to each other in a civil society.  Each and every assault on that unwritten contract,” he observed, “erodes our sense of security, and in so doing, threatens to make us that much less trusting, and less compassionate.”  This is undoubtedly true—and unhelpfully abstract.  It begs the question of whether it is the guns or the shooters that pose the real problem.

The Orthodox Union condemned the shootings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin as an assault on religious freedom—but did not mention guns.  While Orthodox rabbis, like rabbis of other denominations, have undoubtedly sermonized on guns and violence, taking various positions, Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America issued no public statement about the recent events.

Jewish exegesis related to guns is necessarily indirect.  Biblical and talmudic texts generally require people to secure possessions of theirs, such as dangerous dogs, that pose safety hazards.  There are prohibitions on selling weapons to idol worshippers and criminals, lest the weapons be turned against Jews.  At the same time, there are complicating biblical and talmudic pronouncements about moral freedom and pikuah nefesh, saving a life.  In one talmudic commentary on Deuteronomy, the prohibition on a woman’s wearing men’s clothing includes a ban on her wearing weapons, the quintessential male accoutrement.  It follows that for men, wearing weapons is natural.

But none of these sources figures in American Jews’ discussions of guns; instead, there is near blanket opposition.  Why?

At the center of the gun issue is power: To whom does the positive and negative power of weapons rightfully belong? Max Weber famously defined the state as an entity with a monopoly on violence; and the American Jewish attitude towards guns, following Weber, cedes all responsibility for the protection of individuals—of Jews—to government. American Jews, as opposed to Jews through most of history, unilaterally cede this power even though it is available to them.

The issue is not simply Left versus Right.  The Reform movement explicitly wishes to restrict or prohibit individual gun ownership.  In contrast, Orthodox silence on the issue tacitly accepts both the legal status quo, which permits private guns, and social norms, under which Jews do not own guns.  The denominational positions effectively converge. Guns are not for Jews.

One pathological consequence of Jewish powerlessness has been the tendency to embrace weakness, rationalizing it and the suffering it produces as elevated and noble.  Another pathology is guilt regarding whatever power one does possess.  For American Jews, who are not shy about wielding their social and economic power, the choice to remain unarmed is perverse—but logical.

Jews also follow the prejudices of their social class.  Educated upper middle-class suburbanites, largely untouched by gun violence, are notably opposed to guns.  Their opposition reflects intellectuals’ assumptions about the sources of and solutions to violence, and blame is assigned to the technology.  True, the culture of the shooters themselves is identified as the problem in certain cases—say, neo-Nazis.  But in other cases, such as inner cities, culture is quietly ignored: Highlighting it might be thought racist.  Expiating a sense of privilege by restricting the rights of others is another hallmark of the educated upper middle class.  In this sense, too, Jews emulate their fellows and embrace weakness.

There is also a passive-aggressive element in the American Jewish attitude: It cedes a monopoly on violence to government not just in exchange for the government’s protection but as a way of establishing an entitlement to—of demanding—such protection.  Government, correspondingly, offers sympathy to victims while accepting empowerment as their protector.  Unfortunately, criminals and terrorists have not agreed to the bargain.  Thus, the Jewish attitude, a form of pacifism, entails the occasional human sacrifice.

But the American social contract uniquely specifies that government does not retain a monopoly on violence.  The country was founded precisely in rebellion against such an idea, a rebellion that is burned into the nation’s founding documents.  Moreover, the power of governments to threaten liberties is fact, not paranoid fantasy; Jews have been victims of state violence as much or more than non-state violence.  The question of whether to place total trust in the state for protection does not have a self-evident answer.

Then there is the problem of guns and Zion.  How many American Jews are taken aback at seeing young Israeli men and women with assault rifles slung on their shoulders?  How much alienation from Israel comes from the American Jewish desire that violence be impersonal and distant, rather than, as in Israel, intensely personal?

Guns are an imperfect last defense against adversaries—governments, terrorists, home invaders.  In rejecting guns, Jews elect to put their full faith in government—also imperfect, as well as haphazard, biased, even vindictive.  Placing faith in government rather than in legal rights places faith not in laws but in human discretion.  Such a choice in the haphazard and political is necessarily foolish.  And faith in powerlessness is still worse, demeaning and potentially suicidal.

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