Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Gun Control vs. the Right to Bear Arms: A Jewish Point of View

January 2, 2013 2:09 am 2 comments

An SIG Pro semi-automatic pistol. Photo: Augustas Didžgalvis.

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 (an Orthodox spokesman also concurred).

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 to both the requirements of defense preparation and the need for training and safety rules with the best tools available, firearms, which are susceptible to misuse in the wrong hands.

Exodus 13:10 tells us that, “The Israelites were well armed when they left Egypt.” On this verse, Nachmanides explains that the right to arms is a characteristic of free men, saying the Jewish nation “did not go out looking like fleeing slaves, but went out as an independent people that could be armed.”

The commentator Meam Loez ponders how the Egyptians “were able to gain control over the Israelites, since the Israelites were so numerous and powerful,” answering with an explanation of how the Egyptians used subterfuge to take away Israelite weapons.

That Midrash may not be historically true, but it provides an insight to the values of the Passover Haggadah writers who could not understand how their forebears would not have had weapons to defend against oppression. The Hagaddah reads “This year we are slaves,” followed by a call that in the coming year we will be free men. In 1848, Rabbi Ehrenburg of Berlin published a Haggadah omitting that line in his belief that German Jews had gained freedom and were no longer enslaved. With hindsight, we see his error.

Rashi explains that Exodus 22:2 permits killing an intruder as a justifiable homicide. Even where the thief has not shown deadly intent, one can assume intent since the thief is prepared for murder when the owner resists. The supporting Talmud texts (Berachot 58a, Yoma 85b) match “Castle” (defense of habitation) American legal doctrine in home defense, rather than the much more restrictive requirement to withdraw to safety. Others are also obligated to help, and any weapon is permissible, including the assault weapons of that era, according to the Babylonian Talmud (BT), Sanhedrin 72b. Depriving someone of a weapon that could have been used for self-defense makes one liable for the consequences, as the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) recognized when it urged caution in considering the legitimate needs for self-defense and security before telling a non-Jew who lives on synagogue premises not to keep a gun in his apartment.

Shabbat weapons prohibition is discussed in BT Shabbat 63a, but this pre-supposes permissibility on weekdays. When concluding that it is wrong on Shabbat, the verse from Isaiah 2:4 is cited, but the Talmud then explains that Isaiah applies only because Shabbat is a taste in this world of the messianic era. 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 that is necessary for proper enjoyment of a peaceful Shabbat, and says “In situations where life is imperiled, shooting a gun is a mitzvah.”

BT Avodah Zarah 15b restricts sale of weapons to those suspected of murder, whether Jew or Gentile, as well as anyone who might resell to suspected murderers. This suggests prohibitions against sale to those with violent criminal histories and to those who threaten physical violence. This could include sales prohibitions to those with a mental health history that indicates proclivity to violence. However, we also see an allowance for defensive weapons such as shields. While there is no meaningful way to distinguish between a defensive and an offensive firearm, this suggests that even some prohibited persons may have rights of self-defense that must be protected. But there is no basis for a sales restriction for law-abiding citizens.

Perhaps even a child should be taught age-appropriate safety knowledge when 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 fellows. 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, former VP of business management at the Duracell Battery Company, resides in Yorktown Heights, NY, where he was formerly VP of religious affairs at Yorktown Jewish Center. He has taught several classes covering Jewish views on contemporary issues, including business ethics and the right to keep and bear arms.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →