The tragic Newtown shooting has led to renewed calls for gun control by Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders, who have highlighted this as a religious issue (“As Jews, we must act against gun violence — now,” op-ed, Dec. 21).
These emotional reactions are understandable, but their one-sided presentation of Jewish tradition fails to distinguish between the requirements of the real world and our hopes for the messianic age.
Jewish tradition speaks both to defense preparation and the need for training and safety with the best tools available, firearms, which are susceptible to misuse in the wrong hands.
Exodus 13:18 tells us, “The Israelites were well armed when they left Egypt.” Speaking to this verse, Nachmanides says the right to arms is a characteristic of free men, and the Jewish nation “did not go out looking like fleeing slaves, but went out as an independent people that could be armed.”
The commentator Me’am Lo’ez ponders how the Egyptians “were able to gain control over the Israelites, since the Israelites were so numerous and powerful,” suggesting the use of subterfuge to take away the Israelites’ weapons.
Though that Midrash may not be historically true, it offers insight into the values of the Passover Haggadah’s authors, who could not understand how their forebears did not have weapons to defend against oppression. “This year we are slaves,” the Haggadah reads, and in the coming year we will be free men. In 1848, Rabbi Ehrenburg of Berlin published a Haggadah omitting that line, in the belief that German Jews had gained freedom and were no longer enslaved. With hindsight, we see his error.
Exodus 22:2 permits killing an intruder as a justifiable homicide, Rashi explains. Even when the thief has not shown deadly intent, one can assume such intent, since the thief is prepared to murder should the owner resist.
The supporting Talmud texts (Berachot 58a, Yoma 85b) match the American legal doctrine for home defense, rather than the more restrictive requirement to withdraw to safety. Others also are obligated to help, and any weapon is permissible, including the assault weapons of that era, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b.
Shabbat weapons prohibition is discussed in BT Shabbat 63a, but this presupposes they are permitted on other days. Even on Shabbat, weapons are permitted to protect life, as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the former chief rabbi of Israel, has ruled.
“It is a mitzvah to shoot both on weekdays or Shabbat … when needed for self-defense … And it is not meant for non-security uses” like sport or hunting. Goren encourages the feeling of security necessary for proper enjoyment of a peaceful Shabbat. “In situations where life is imperiled, shooting a gun is a mitzvah,” he says.
BT Avodah Zarah 15b restricts the sale of weapons to those suspected of murder, whether Jew or gentile, as well as anyone who might resell to suspected murderers. This suggests sales prohibitions to those with violent criminal histories and those who threaten physical violence. This also could include sales prohibitions to those with mental health issues who indicate a proclivity for violence. However, there is no basis for a sales restriction for law-abiding citizens.
Perhaps even a child should be taught age-appropriate safety knowledge around firearms, since “his life may depend on it” (BT Kiddushin 30b). Certainly for adults, training is appropriate, as Samuel II 22:35 states: “He teaches my hands to war; and trains my arms to bend a bow of bronze.”
Jewish tradition supports a right to bear arms, and the training to use them, as characteristics of a free people. We also have ethical obligations for self-defense and protecting the lives of our fellow citizens. Judaism’s nuanced view balances the right, and even the need, for weapons ownership with the safety prescriptions necessary to assure that the innocent are protected.
Sometimes, furthering peace and preventing violence require the weapons necessary to root out that violence.
Robert D. Altabet is a former vice president of religious affairs at Yorktown (N.Y.) Jewish Center and has taught classes covering Jewish views on contemporary issues. This piece was distributed by jns.org.