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Gun Control, Halakhah, and History: Further Thoughts

Jewish Ideas Daily recently published an article in which I argued that even people who share a framework of Jewish values may reasonably disagree about how to deal with America’s gun crisis.  This argument has provoked comment from opposing directions.  One set of critics protests, “How can you overlook Judaism’s absolute abhorrence of weapons?”  Another group says, “After the Holocaust, how can you ignore the moral imperative for Jews to bear arms?”  Neither of these questions changes the conclusion that Judaism’s teachings are ambiguous in their implications for public policy toward gun control. 

Relevant Links
Gun Control and the Limits of Halakhah  Shlomo M. Brody, Jewish Ideas Daily. Rabbinic disputes on the proper regulation of dangerous dogs illustrate that reasonable people, who share Jewish values regarding violence and self-defense, can disagree about gun control.
Jews and Guns  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. 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?

As with warfare in general, the Bible is ambivalent toward weaponry: weapons are necessary but not idealized.  The Torah frequently refers to weapons.  While some references merely describe contemporary instruments of war, many are symbolic.  After Adam and Eve’s exile, the Garden of Eden is protected by revolving swords, signifying the beginning of an era in which weapons will be needed to protect our most treasured property (Genesis 3:24).  Cain’s descendant Tubal-Cain invents “instruments of copper and iron,” understood by the Sages to symbolize weapons of destruction (4:22).  The transformation of swords into plowshares represents the end of war and the beginning of the messianic era (Isaiah 2:4).  The word keshet not only describes the violent arrow employed by Ishmael and others but represents God's rainbow, His promise to protect the world from further destruction (Genesis 9:13).  The imagery strongly suggests a biblical belief that weaponry, like war, is a reality of life—but should not be glorified, since our greatest hope is for an end to its use. 

This moral sentiment is expressed in law as well.  The Bible forbids the use of certain metal instruments to construct an altar (Exodus 20:21); the reason, in one interpretation, is that those same instruments may be used to shorten life, while worship on the altar is meant to extend life.  Similarly, the Sages forbade entering the Sanctuary with a sword (Sanhedrin 82a), a restriction later interpreted by medieval Jewish law to forbid bringing sharp knives, apparently used by traveling merchants for protection, into a synagogue (Orach Chaim 151:6).  In contemporary Israel, where armed soldiers and citizens regularly enter synagogues to pray, contemporary decisors contend that one should, where possible, cover the weapons or remove the ammunition (Shu"t Yechave Da'at 5:18). 

The same sentiment informs the modern treatment of handling weapons on Shabbat, a day when one generally may not move any object regularly used for activities forbidden on Shabbat (muktzeh).  One should not handle a hammer, for instance, because building is a category of forbidden labor.  What about a gun?  It produces a flame and draws blood, both of which are forbidden Shabbat activities; therefore, many rabbis believe that handling guns is prohibited on Shabbat (muktzeh) unless for saving lives.  Yet Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and the State of Israel, argued that even on a weekday, a Jew may use weapons only for morally imperative purposes—to deter enemies, prevent danger, or save lives.  But if the purposes are morally imperative, a Jew may handle weapons even on Shabbat. 

The same logic makes the notion of using guns for recreation, like hunting, totally alien to Jewish law.  Some scholars say the use of a gun to earn a living by hunting—or even by operating a recreational hunting facility—may be permitted, especially if other jobs are unavailable.  But to use weapons to kill animals for fun, as Rabbi Yechezkel Landau declared in a celebrated responsum, is to imitate biblical villains like Nimrod and Esau, not our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  (Since 1955 Israeli law has, unfortunately, allowed recreational hunting.  A recent rise in illegal poaching has renewed debate about the practice and may lead to its curtailment.) 

In the same way, while it is understood that the use of weaponry is sometimes morally necessary, the glorification of weaponry is foreign to Jewish thought.  In a well-known Mishnah, the Sages, in line with Isaiah’s messianic vision, banned bearing weapons in public on Shabbat, even as an ornament, since "they are merely shameful.”  Very few historical sources refer to Jews wearing arms as ornaments, except for certain early modern court Jews who thereby signified their social rank.  One 13th-century scholar, Rabbi Isaac of Vienna, criticized Bohemian Jews for wearing armory on the Sabbath eve—but defended the practice if it was intended to deter bandits (Or Zarua 2:84). 

What do these sentiments imply for public policy in America?  First, society should abhor and boycott cultural media, like movies and video games, which glorify guns and violence.  Social scientists debate the impact of these media on behavior.  Irrespective of that debate, however, violent imagery without educational purpose violates the values of a religion that goes so far as to prohibit even raising one's hand against someone else without cause, let alone actually striking the individual.  The second necessary implication is that guns should be used only for protection, not for recreation. 

Yet in America, both media violence and recreational use of weapons are difficult to regulate.  The First Amendment protects the media; the Second Amendment, to some extent, protects weapons use.  Moreover, large numbers of Americans view recreational hunting as morally acceptable.  In these areas, alas, specifically Jewish perspectives are outside the contemporary American consensus and very likely to remain so.  This fact, too, has implications: Greater emphasis should be placed on promoting Jewish perspectives within the private spheres of home, school, and synagogue. 

But none of the legal sources contemplates banning weapons—certainly not weapons used for self-defense.  As Rabbi Isaac of Vienna’s ruling testifies and historians have confirmed, Jews have owned weapons during many historical periods, even when discriminatory laws purported to ban Jewish ownership. Yitzchak Kahane has documented discussions of Jewish-owned weaponry in everyday legal texts on topics from property disputes to broken contracts for weapons training.  More significant, there are numerous halakhic discussions of the issues involved in weapons sales by Jews to their gentile neighbors (Avodah Zarah 15b).  Medieval Christian texts stress the obligation of Jewish citizens to assume their share of the defense of city walls, and this obligation led to a rich halakhic discussion of bearing arms on Shabbat.  In Spain, one 12th-century French scholar noted, “it is still common for Jews to go to war with the king," reflecting the early Hispano-Jewish tradition of warrior leaders like Shmuel Ha-Nagid.  There is even documentation of Jews’ occasional use of weapons to defend against anti-Semitism, like this passage from the so-called Crusade Chronicles: 

When the people of the Holy Covenant . . . saw the great multitude . . . they clung to their Creator.  They donned their armor and their weapons of war, adults and children alike, with Rabbi Kalonymos . . . at their head . . . and they all advanced toward the gate to fight against the errant ones and the burghers.

None of this discussion marks Jews as warmongers or even habitual hunters, but it does show that Jews owned weapons and used them to defend themselves.

On the other hand, when some U.S. gun rights advocates claim that Jewish history makes it morally imperative for Jews to own guns, they are entirely unpersuasive.  Yes, fewer Jews might have been killed in the Holocaust if the Nazis had not barred them from owning guns.  But the lesson of that experience is that when a totalitarian anti-Semitic government tells Jews to give up their guns, Jews should keep those weapons or, better yet, flee.  How is that relevant to contemporary America and its police and armed forces? Those who actually fear rampant anti-Semitic attacks on a future generation of unarmed U.S. Jews should move to Israel, with its Jewish army and nuclear bombs.  Otherwise, they should just get a grip.

If we accept the fact that 21st-century Washington, D.C. is not Nazi-era Berlin, here is a better question: Including Representative Gabby Giffords in Arizona, Noah Pozner in Newtown, and the Canadian couple recently murdered in Florida, how many Jews have been injured or killed by the latest round of U.S. gun violence?  In the same period, how many were killed by anti-Semites?  In all likelihood, more American Jews have fallen victim to hunting accidents and careless gun-handling than to punks with swastika tattoos.  In America, maximizing Jewish welfare means maximizing safety for all citizens.  Does this mean encouraging responsible citizens to own handguns, getting weapons off the streets, or any of the other strategies that have been proposed?  That is the question to ask.

The legacy of Jewish perspectives on gun control—as related in law, theology, and history—is that weapons should be regulated in a manner that deters evildoers and protects the innocent.  What specific policies will achieve this goal in today’s America?  Reasonable people can disagree.  But Jews who take part in this dialogue can draw on critical Jewish values that should frame the debate, even if these values cannot provide all the solutions. 

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.  Follow his writings at  

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Norman on January 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm (Reply)
We need to learn from history to prevent bad things from happening. Many Jews are assimilated and engage in what some of their neighbours and associates do as well and that includes hunting and firearm related sports and many do also carry guns for protection. While pogroms are unlikely to occur in the US, security is necessary as viewed by the fact of hiring police at Jewish institutions, particularly around Jewish holy days, and for good reasons. Jews should be able to protect themselves in the event of an emergency which are unpredictable as we have seen in recent years such as the shooting at the airport in San Francisco, or the school in Seattle, mostly by Muslim zealots. Jews take pride in knowing that there have been Jewish warriors that have achieved greatness because of their achievements but at the same time do not promote the awareness of these heroes exploits. The 1st member of Merrill`s maurauders to kill an enemy in the Pacific was a Jew. Jews were represented in the military far above their percentage of the population in the US, UK, Canada, Russia and many other countries during WW2. While the use of guns in crime is exploited little is said of the prevention of crime by individuals who are armed and competent.
Chuck Klein on January 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm (Reply)
The theme of this treatise seems to be ". . . our greatest hope is for an end to its [weapon's]use." Who is writer Brody speaking for? If a fellow Jew (or any American) doesn't wish to own/bear arms, that's their business, but for them to attempt to prohibit me from doing so is morally wrong.

The second to last thing a morally responsible, prudent person wants to do is kill another human being regardless of how reprehensible, villainous or dangerous that person might be. The last thing this morally responsible, prudent person wants to do is be killed by that reprehensible, villainous and dangerous person."

All the rules, statutes, restraining orders, 911 calls, hand to hand combat technics, aerosol spray Mace or other pseudo protective measures will never equal the effectiveness of a firearm when faced with an unwarranted and deadly criminal attack."

If you're ever in a situation where another person is about to murder you, at that moment, you'd trade all your worldly possessions for a firearm. And, if that threat was to kill your child or your grandchild, you'd sell your soul for a gun."

Klein Laws:
charles hoffman on January 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm (Reply)
ירמיהו לב לה
וַיִּבְנוּ אֶת בָּמוֹת הַבַּעַל אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵיא בֶן הִנֹּם לְהַעֲבִיר אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת בְּנוֹתֵיהֶם לַמֹּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִים וְלֹא עָלְתָה עַל לִבִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת הַתּוֹעֵבָה הַזֹּאת לְמַעַן החטי [הַחֲטִיא] אֶת יְהוּדָה.

We sacrifice our children to the new Moloch of unrestricted guns
We do it; we're complacent in it; we're not fighting against it.

And we're guilty just as if we'd pulled the triggers ourselves.
    Fred on January 23, 2013 at 11:25 pm (Reply)
    You are right. We are sacrificing our children to a new Moloch. But it is not one of unrestricted guns. The new Moloch is Gun Free Zones. Also know as hunting preserves for innocent people. We have to end this madness. We guard our money, our jewelry, our sport arenas, our celebrities, and our politicians with guns. But we continue to sacrifice our most precious citizens, our children on the liberal altar of gun free zones.

    And we're guilty just as if we'd pulled the triggers ourselves.
Kenny on January 22, 2013 at 6:14 pm (Reply)
I believe the Talmud (source needed) states that if someone comes to kill you, השקמ להרגו . They don't mean you should pinch them to death. Also in the Torah it states that you are allowed to kill someone who breaks into your home at night, since they are, by the act of breaking in when you are at home, intending to kill you.
    Fred on January 24, 2013 at 12:02 am (Reply)
    The Torah (Shemos 22:1) tells us if a thief tunnels into your home that his blood is forfeit and you shall kill him. The Gemora learns from this “If someone comes to kill you, arise [preempt him] and kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). It only stands to reason that you are required to have the implements needed (weapons) to carry out those commands.
Kenny on January 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm (Reply)
BTW Hebrew comment loosely translated means get up early and wack'm. A la IDF in 1967.
Yoel B on January 24, 2013 at 12:14 pm (Reply)
Such evidence as there is in the US tells us that legal firearms ownership and the right to carry concealed weapons in public are at worst neutral with respect to risk of death and injury, but probably at least somewhat beneficial.

Given that Jews are proportionally underrepresented in the military, law enforcement and gun owner ranks, that tends to make American Jews what the economists call “free riders” on the efforts taken and risks assumed by others. That is a strange position to make a moral argument from and given our minority status, discussion of firearms ownership and use by Bnei Noach might well have been more relevant in the US than is the Jewish question.

Worse, Rabbi Brody omitted a very important Jewish value which, if widely embodied would indeed make a real contribution to this important debate: in argument or debate, understand the argument you disagree with so thoroughly that when you state it, you are expressing it as well or better than your opponent.

He failed at this, though succeeding at erecting straw men. Before going into more detail, I would like to offer two quotations. The first is from Thomas Jefferson, the second from Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-CA 33rd District.)

“When the Government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the Government, there is tyranny.”

“If someone is so fearful that, they’re going to start using their weapons to protect their rights, makes me very nervous that these people have these weapons at all.”

The prophetic lesson that a king is not an absolute monarch but is himself subject to Law was in the minds of the Framers as was the Magna Carta’s limitation of a king’s power by the assembled aristocracy and the gradual expansion of the sorts of people who had a right to a say in what the government could and could not do.

One way in which the United States has been distinctive is that rights such as free speech, a free press, freedom of religion and the right to bear arms are not conceived of as granted by the government; rather, the government is, with narrow exceptions, forbidden to restrict them and loses its legitimacy if it does so. This was a major point made in the Declaration of Independence.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both wanted the statement “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” on the Great Seal of the United States and it was a favorite saying of pioneering feminist Susan B. Anthony. Dave Kopel does an excellent job of telling how we got that idea at

Now to a representative straw man and poor statement of the opposing argument: “ ...the lesson of that experience [gun confiscation in Nazi era Germany] is that when a totalitarian anti-Semitic government tells Jews to give up their guns, Jews should keep those weapons or, better yet, flee.”

Not exactly. An honest statement of an opponent’s best argument rather than Rabbi Brody’s clever attempt to avoid the invocation of Godwin’s Law might go more like this:

The Weimar Republic sought to regulate something that had previously not been so systematically regulated. This made the subsequent restriction of a freely granted right or privilege much easier, and should have been an alarm signal to Germany’s Jews. Perhaps being inured to the European habit, which still persists, of setting up legal systems that grant rights rather than guaranteeing them, as if the thinking was “the State giveth, and the State taketh away, blessed be the Name of the State” desensitized Germany’s Jews to the danger.

It is likely that Jefferson’s statement above was informed by the fact that an important casus belli of the American Revolution was that the colonial power first tried to restrict the importation of military style weaponry and then to confiscate it.

The UK today places severe current restrictions on the right to defend one’s life and property for fear of infringing the rights of criminals – which would have been as much anathema to prior British generations as they were to the American Revolutionaries – and which seems to have caused a huge increase in violent crime.

The British Crown used such restrictions to oppress the Irish and Scots, the post-Reconstruction South and apartheid South Africa imposed them on blacks to limit their ability to defend themselves, and of course there was the Nazi abrogation of Jews’ right to defend themselves. Congressman Waxman’s statement above would have been at home in their mouths of those oppressors. Even though he pays lip service to the existence of rights, as we well know, to prevent someone from using those rights is the first step to their elimination. That was the message of the Civil Rights Act.

In Germany, the liberal Weimar government took a step that made the Nazis’ firearms confiscation much easier: they instituted registration of firearms. The law remained on the books once the Nazis came to power, and the collected data was available to the Nazis, yemach shemam, who were the first totalitarian government to make use of information technology in a big way. That enabled them to know where each Jew lived, and the registration list was an important tool for them in disarming Germany’s Jews. Any argument regarding the difference in capabilities of Colonial weaponry and todays must also take into account the difference in the oppressive means available to the State.

The primary loci of anti-Semitism in the USA today are the Left and those influenced by Islam. As a result, Rabbi Brody’s invocation of “punks with swastika tattoos” seems more of an attempt to obfuscate than to clarify, unless he means to draw attention to the fact that Italian fascism and the German National Socialist Workers’ Party were domestically very progressive socialist governments and widely admired for their middle path between rank capitalism and Soviet style Communism. Progressives such as H.G. Wells and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were among those admirers; that latter was a mutual admiration society. The Nazis admired her racist eugenic philosophy and modeled laws after her principles.

This was so, even as, in the name of unity, the rising Axis powers sought to delegitimize and then expel from the body politic those it saw as class enemies who impeded that unity. Once Germany rearmed, the rest of Europe, especially its Jews, fell victim to Germany’s Progressive ideals but even so, Italian fascism and German National Socialism won the plaudits of many Progressives in the USA and UK, and once the pact between Nazi Germany was in place, the support of the Communist Parties in the West. Anti-fascism wasn’t an official Communist virtue until Germany’s attack on the USSR.

What characterized Italy, Germany and the USSR? Three internal characteristics widely cited as characteristics of a fascist state, though applying to the USSR after the German attack, are:

A single party dictatorship, headed by a charismatic leader. (Ominously, the President of the United States is today seeking not merely the electoral defeat of the other party, but its delegitimization and ultimate total ruin – or at any rate, that’s what his media proxies are urging him to do.)
A politics of enthusiasm which involves the masses in ritual public celebration and direct mass exchanges between the leader and his followers. (Technology has modified the need for the mass rallies that typified the fascist states of the 20th century, though mass sporting and events and other entertainments with attendance in the tens of thousands seem fraught with potential here.)
A corporate state which permits private property but in which the state dictates its “proper” use.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey claimed that Obamacare is fascist economics. Michael Ledeen ( agrees, but emphasizes the point that economic fascism does’t necessarily require the foreign policy part of classic fascism.
While this is frequently considered to be a key component of fascism, a review of history shows that hybrids are possible: Until the German invasion the USSR eschewed nationalism in favor of a similar dynamic based on class, and an oppressive dynamic based on religion is in play today in the world wide movement to impose Sharia and its religiously mandated second class status for non-Muslims. While there isn’t a single charismatic leader in the Muslim world, the jihadi ideology works for the emergence of a caliph, who would be that leader.
Nazi Germany, with its ambitious social programs probably had to go to war for the plunder required to pay the bills. It exported its wartime inflation to the countries it occupied (its central bankers were the experts called in to manage this) and just plain stole and murdered to get the money to give its favored citizens the cradle to grave support that the State’s own peaceful revenues wasn’t enough for.
Given the hundreds of millions of Jews and non-Jews killed recently by fascism and communism and for centuries by jihad, to limit our concerns to right wing anti-Semitism is extremely short sighted.

Rabbi Brody redeems his own argument somewhat at the end when he writes “In America, maximizing Jewish welfare means maximizing safety for all citizens.” But given what came before, there’s a lot of redeeming to do and that statement falls short.
Secretary on January 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm (Reply)
When I went to high school a long time ago, it was the same town that Mrs. Clinton gew up in, that high school had a rifle range in its basement.
Student would bring their rifle and pistols and practice after school.
At that time many high schools had similar ranges in their basements.
That was before drugs made it into the schools.
People did not shoot each other,
Students had single shot rifles and M1 Carbines.
I guess it is all in the culture that you come from.
I have heard that some private Christian Schools have their own ranges in their basements where students do practice fireing.
Of course that are Christains who put their faith in not only their Bible, but a gun.
    Kenny on January 24, 2013 at 5:51 pm (Reply)
    Gevalt, do we need to say Christian, and Bnai Noach? Not germaine to the issue.
    I belong to a local gun club. As one member once remarked to me:
    " the only Jews I know I've met here at the range."
      Yoel B on January 25, 2013 at 2:11 am (Reply)
      Most of Rabbi Brody's article was dealing how a small, largely free riding population's internal laws and philosophy should inform its public stances on an important public policy issue. So if he's saying 'mutar under some circumstances but strongly discouraged' he needs to also say whether the same thinking applies to non-Jews or whether he's just saying that as a Jew I should really hold myself to a higher standard even if my personal opinion is that to do so places me at higher risk than my current course of training and practice of one of a martial art usable by those with significant physical limitations.
Kenny on January 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm (Reply)
Does anyone remember when popular magazines including comic books advertised surplus firearms; M-1 carbines and Garands and other surplus WW2 weaponry. These were mail-ordered, and delivered by the US Postal Service . Then one dark and dreary day a genius decided that the boxes in which these weapons were delivered should be labeled FIREARM. Within very short order holdups of postmen skyrocketed; leading to the end of mail order fire arm sales.

An unrelated fact: I was a grad student at MSU (Michigan State University} during the seventies. There was a firing range in the basement of the ROTC building in which students and the public were invited to shoot handguns and .22 rifles. It was enjoyed by all. Even during the SDS riots and burning of the ROTC office we continued to enjoy the use of this range. We were even allowed to check out Hi Standard .22 semi automatic pistols owned by MSU! Let me repeat, pistols owned by MSU.
There were zero incidents.

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