The Jewish View on Weapons
As we debate gun policy in the wake of Newtown, we should heed the wisdom of the Jewish sages
At issue in this debate is the effectiveness of safeguards. Eliezer believes that we can train dangerous animals to be less dangerous. The sages do not. Yet both agree that there are some creatures that are just too much of a liability. It is not clear whether these animals were used for defense or play, but either way it dovetails with the gun debate. There is no doubt that guns are dangerous, and the rabid misuse of guns brings into question whether good training of people or society could quell gun violence. Perhaps it’s a lost cause and, as is the case with a snake, you just don’t know what will happen when they are around.
The Blood Avenger
If these animal analogies seem too strained, there is one important human parallel the sages provide: the blood avenger. According to the Bible (Numbers 25, Deuteronomy 19), if a person commits manslaughter, he may flee to one of six cities of refuge to avoid vengeance from a member of his victim’s family, called the blood avenger. He would wait in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, at which point he would go free, forever immune from retribution. This esoteric law fits in with the gun debate when it comes to the rabbis’ ruling over what people were forbidden to bring into the city. Talmud, Makkot 10a, reads:
No weapons—not even a hunter’s gear—should be sold [in a city of refuge]. Such is the opinion of Rabbi Nehemiah, but the sages permit such sales. However, both agree that no traps are to be set, nor are nooses to be knotted in these towns, so that the blood avenger may not be tempted to acquire these weapons while visiting a city of refuge.
More than anything, limiting the weapons in these cities of refuge was meant to deter the blood avenger from breaking the law and killing the now immune murderer in a fit of rage. True, the city, like any city, deserves to protect itself. But the risk of allowing weapons to fall into the hands of unstable people who may actually use them outweighs any consideration of defense.
The Stumbling Block
The final analogy appears in the command in Leviticus 19:14 to avoid putting “a stumbling block in front of the blind.” The rule is understood as speaking not only of a physical barrier, and the rabbis broadened this definition to include anything that adds undue danger or harm to someone who is unable to expect it. Gun-control groups often cite this text as a touchstone to their argument for why gun access should be limited. Since guns might be found by children who don’t understand their power, or acquired by unstable individuals who do not have the adequate means to keep their emotions in check, guns can often become a dangerous stumbling block. Jewish law teaches that “it is a positive commandment to remove and be vigilant about any stumbling block where there is a danger to someone’s life … and if you do not remove it or leave the stumbling block and it brings about danger you have failed in your mission to fulfill the commandment and [you] may have been responsible for spilling another’s blood” (S.A Choshen Mishpat 427:8). In another words, if you sell a stumbling block or leave it in the open you are responsible if someone dies even though you did not pull the trigger.
Jewish denominations have plenty to say about gun control. The Reform and Conservative movements have both issued statements about the need for steeper gun-control measures. However, in the Reform movement’s multiple resolutions on the matter, dating back to the 1970s, and the Conservative movement’s to 1993 and 2012, make almost no mention of Jewish texts in justification for their positions.
Perhaps liberal Jews who support gun control are reluctant to draw on our classical texts because guns are so different from swords, dogs, snakes, or any other items. After all, a single sword can’t kill dozens of people in seconds. Guns don’t have minds of their own, like dogs. Lions aren’t easily concealed. Yet, when taken as a whole, I believe these texts provide us with a clear ethic.
All these analogies weigh individual interests with societal good. The rabbis understood the liability that an owner of weapons or animals faced and did their best to safeguard against anything that might cause their misuse. You can certainly protect yourself, says the tradition, but not at all costs. Furthermore, the rabbis were not uniform in who could own dangerous things. Unstable individuals shouldn’t own swords. Neither should those who did not understand how to use them. Anyone who might panic can’t buy weapons, nor should someone who can’t control their animals.
Jewish law has never worked in a vacuum, and so it is impossible to totally divorce our modern values from our ancient texts. Nevertheless, I believe that the ethics displayed in these texts teach us that we are not doing enough to safeguard our society and keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who might misuse them. I have little doubt that were I unfamiliar with these texts, I would still support background checks, waiting periods, and bans on assault weapons. But I’m proud to be a part of a religion that contains legal ethics and values that fall in line with why I support these positions: a desire to safeguard against accidents, a vision of keeping weapons out of the hands of those who may misuse them, and an emphasis on societal good.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a third-century Jewish sage, once taught: Great is peace … if the Holy One had not given peace to the world, sword and beast would devour up the whole world. Let us all hope that through our discourse we silence the “swords and beasts” of our day, bringing about a world one step closer to peace.
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This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner