WHAT JUDAISM HAS TO SAY ABOUT GUNS—AND FEAR
At a crucial moment in history, the Rabbis realized that the study of Torah, rather than armed struggle, would ensure Jewish survival. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,” became the enduring call of Hanukkah. The Rabbis were prescient; the Roman Empire has long since vanished, but we Jews are here, still promoting the paths of peace and non-violence.
Weapons may sometimes prove necessary, but they are never beautiful, says the Talmud. Even in the modern state of Israel, where the casual tourist cannot fail to notice the ubiquity of army-grade weapons on the streets, the religious principle of tahor haneshek, “the purity of arms,” strictly limits their use to the immediate defense of life. Consequently, the incidence of gun violence in the civilian sector is among the lowest of developed countries.
In the wake of the election, the Beth Shalom Board and leadership have been carefully considering when we, as a religious institution, and I, as a Rabbi, ought to take a stand on issues of contemporary concern. One thing’s for sure: our tradition mandates that we bring our values into the public arena. We do not relegate Jewish life to areas behind the mezuzah—the home, classroom and synagogue—but wherever we go in the world. If we fail to confront pressing social (and environmental) challenges, not just as American citizens but as Jews, we neglect one of the three foundational pillars of Judaism, “deeds of righteousness” (the other two being “Torah” and “prayer”).
Any advocacy the synagogue or Rabbi undertakes must be driven by core Jewish values. The Jewish precept behind gun safety laws is one of the most basic: piku’ach nefesh, “the preservation of life.” For its sake, Jewish law stipulates that we must sweep aside nearly all other commandments and considerations. We break Shabbat in order to rush the wounded to the hospital, eat nourishment on Yom Kippur when sick, and may steal food if it’s a matter of starvation. Nothing is more sacred than human life, not even God, because the human being is the very image of God.
In the name of piku’ach nefesh, Rabbinic authorities enacted a number of rulings over the centuries that have direct application to guns. For example, the Talmud forbids a homeowner from keeping a, wild animal or wobbly ladder at home, pursuant to the verse: “you shall not bring blood upon your house.” (This injunction contradicts the common saying: “ladders don’t kill, people do.”) From another commandment, “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind,” the Rabbis derive the prohibition against selling a weapon to an angry person. If you do, you bear responsibility for any ensuing bloodshed. By the same reasoning, the decree extends to all who are tempted to inflict harm: the mentally ill, depressed, suicidal, and so on. From the verse: “you shall take utmost care over your lives,” the 18th-century authority Rabbi Ezekiel Landau ruled that hunting for sport, as opposed to sustenance or safety, violates Jewish law. The inviolability of human life dictates that, absent a real-and-present need, you may not intentionally place yourself in a hazardous situation.
By the same token of piku’ach nefesh, Jewish law explicitly authorizes the right to self-defense. Many invoke self-defense to justify owning guns. However, it is crucial to distinguish between the considered assessment of real-and-present danger versus an illogical response to perceived threat. Gun sales spike nationwide after every mass shooting, despite the fact that owning a firearm in America increases the chances of dying by gun violence nearly 300 percent, as confirmed by study after study. We may feel more secure with a gun, but we end up reacting imprudently, in ways that ironically escalate conflict and risk.
We live in an age of fear. Fear fragments communities and unravels the social fabric. Fear and weapons go hand in hand. In a perverse variation of the saying “build it and they will come,” one Rabbi puts it this way: “the more weapons, the more fear; the more fear, the more people feel the urge to possess weapons.” To live in constant fear is the mark of a cursed society. At the end of the Book of Leviticus, the long litany of imprecations culminates with: “you shall flee from the sound of a wind-blown leaf as if it were a sword; you shall stumble and fall, though no one pursues.”
What would constitute the opposite of armed conflict and perennial fear? To meet one another with generosity and open-heartedness. To assume goodwill, absent hard evidence to the contrary. Consider Jacob’s confrontation with his brother after their twenty-year separation. Jacob certainly had reason to be fearful; after all, the previous time together, Esau threatened to kill him. Looking up, he sees Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. Were Jacob to gather his troops and gird himself with weapons, who would blame him? Instead, he sends away his family and retinue, and approaches, alone and unarmed. We know the rest. Esau runs up, flings his arms around his neck, and hugs him. Jacob’s non-combative disposition enables Esau to respond favorably. Moreover, it seems that Jacob’s earlier fears were largely the product of his internal anxiety (and guilt).
My hope and prayer for ourselves, this community and this country: may we identify and subdue our own irrational fear-driven impulses. May we cultivate, instead, responses based upon goodwill and compassion. Just as Jacob said to his brother Esau, “to see your face is to see the face of God,” may we search for the trace of God in the faces of one another. May we uphold piku’ach nefesh and the elemental injunction of Judaism: “choose life!” Above all, choose life.