Guns and Talmud

January 22, 2013Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser

America is facing a choice about guns that will have to be settled in public opinion, in Congress, in state legislatures, and in the courts. The question is whether it is right to place further restrictions on the possession and use of firearms. Even though ancient Jewish sources do not speak specifically to the question of gun control (obviously!), looking at the values of our tradition can help us, as Jews, to decide where to stand on this issue.

Advocates for the unfettered right to bear arms often argue that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution answers any possible question about firearm restrictions because it grants citizens an absolute right to own firearms. That is not true. The Constitution can provide no absolute rights because the rights of one person can always be in conflict with the rights of others. 

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment to guarantee most citizens the right to keep handguns in their homes for self-defense (District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 [2008]). The Court also has said that neither the federal government nor the individual states may abrogate that right (McDonald v. Chicago, 561 US 3025 [2010]), but it has said little beyond that. 

This is in accord with Jewish tradition, which also states that a person should defend his or herself in a deadly confrontation. The Talmud says that "If a pursuer comes to kill you, kill him first" (B. Sanhedrin 72a). It follows that if a person has the right (or duty) to self-defense, that person must also have the means. 

However, just as the right to free speech in the First Amendment does not give people the right to yell "fire!" in a crowded theater, the Second Amendment does not give everyone the right to own any kind of weapon. In American civil law and in Jewish law, the right to bear arms is tempered by the right of others to be protected from the chaos of a society in which dangerous people possessed firearms or in which highly dangerous weapons were easily obtainable. 

In fact, the federal government and every state in the Union already restrict the right to bear arms. State and federal laws, for example, ban felons and minors from owning guns, require the registration of certain firearms dealers, and prohibit carrying firearms in certain schools, government offices and military installations. The question is not whether the government can regulate firearms, only how much.

In light of a rash of mass killings with legally owned weapons—especially the murder of 27 people, 20 of them children, in a school in Newtown, Connecticut—our society must ask if current restrictions go far enough to protect innocent people. The vast weight of Jewish tradition suggests that such restrictions are not only advisable, they are morally necessary.

The Torah teaches us, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16). The verse is most often interpreted in Jewish sources as a positive commandment to act preemptively against the loss of life. The Talmud expands upon this principle, teaching: 

How do we know that if you see someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, you are obligated to save that person? From the verse, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (B. Sanhedrin 73a)

The general principle is clear. If we have the power to save lives, we are morally obliged to act. Proactive action to prevent loss of life is not optional. It is required. 

The contemporary problem of guns in society seems to fit this principle. More than 30,000 people were killed by guns in the United States in 2010, more than the number of people who were killed by acts of terrorism worldwide. Certainly, it is not possible to prevent all of those deaths by passing restrictions on gun ownership and use. But it is equally certain that some additional restrictions could have saved lives without denying others their right to self-protection. 

Measures such as background checks for all gun sales, banning large clips that allow a shooter to fire dozens of rounds in a few seconds, and banning military-style assault weapons are reasonable. None of these restrictions is a complete solution in itself, but each could, perhaps, save hundreds of lives by keeping the most dangerous weapons out of the most dangerous hands. We are obliged to act to save lives.

Such restrictions in our times very much resemble the kinds of restrictions that the rabbinic authorities of the Talmud mandated for their times. The Talmud requires a person to keep a dangerous dog on a chain (B. Bava Kamma 79a). The Talmud also prohibits the sale of weapons and the accessories for weapons to people who are known to engaged, or suspected to engage, in  dangerous or immoral behavior (B. Avodah Zarah 15b). 

Gun rights advocates sometimes argue that, instead of restricting the ownership and use of guns, it would be better to put more guns into the hands of more "good guys" to solve the problem of guns in the hands of "bad guys." Both sides in the gun debate point to studies that variously say (depending on the policies they favor) either that more guns lead to more violence, or that more guns lead to less violence. You can take your pick of the solution you favor, but it is clear that Jewish tradition has its own preference.

The Talmud teaches that weapons are, at best, a necessary evil. All things considered equal, Jewish tradition would prefer a world in which there were fewer weapons, not more. A mishnah states to this effect: 

"A person should not walk around with a sword, bow, shield, lance or spear. Such behavior requires a sin offering. Rabbi Eliezer asked, 'What if they are merely ornaments?' to which the Sages say, 'They are shameful'" (B. Shabbat 63a). 

How do the rabbis know that wearing weapons is shameful, not something we should desire or feel good about? They offer one of the most famous passages from the prophets as a proof text. It is, they say, as Isaiah taught, "They shall beat their swords into plough shares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). 

We should aspire to a world without guns. A gun may stop a gun, but, by that logic, we will live in a society in which the threat of violence surrounds us everywhere. That is not what Jewish values suggest as an ideal society. Judaism rejects the nihilism of a society whose motto is, "Every man for himself." 

Rather, our tradition teaches that we should be proactive in creating a society in which we take care of each by accepting limitations on the weapons and behaviors that tend to lead us toward fear, hatred, violence and threat. God has made us to be joyful in life, not to be fearful.

Judaism suggests that we place restrictions on the most dangerous weapons and keep all weapons away from those most likely to use them violently. It is a position that is consistent with the framework of the Second Amendment and with the values of our tradition.

Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser is the rabbi of Temple Beit HaYam in in Stuart, FL.

Originally published at Reb Jeff

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