Gun Control, Halakhah, and History: Further Thoughts

By Shlomo M. Brody
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

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. 

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 Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody.  


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