The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has sparked passionate debate about whether or not we need stricter gun-control laws in this country—and the Jewish community is no exception. For every organization like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which aggressively advocates for strict gun control, there are others like Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, who call gun control “code words for disarming innocent people.” Both camps, of course, claim that Judaism is on their side.
Who’s telling the truth? What does Judaism actually have to say about guns? The question can’t be answered with the perfect passage from the Torah or the Talmud, in part because the rabbis could never have fathomed the destructive nature of modern guns, like the ones that took the lives of 27 people in Newtown last Friday. To understand what our sages would have thought about our modern problems of unlimited ammunition and semiautomatic weapons, we have to examine their perspective on the dangers of their time—such as swords, dogs, stumbling blocks, and snakes. Their wisdom remains eerily relevant.
Swords and Other Weapons
There is little doubt that our rabbinic forebears lived in a violent world: The Talmud is full of stories and rules regarding ropes, chains, stocks, swords, and shields. Yet their views on these implements were not monolithic. On the one hand, the 13th-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides says that when Lemach, Adam’s great-great grandson (mentioned in the fourth chapter of Genesis) taught his son to smelt metal, his wives protested. They worried that through this simple act, Lemach was bringing death into the world since now humans would be able to make swords. However, Lemach, according to Nachmanides’ interpretation, replied to the wives that murder existed well before weapons. After all, his great-grandfather Cain killed his brother Abel with his bare hands. The story is perhaps the oldest variation on the phrase made famous on so many bumper stickers: Swords don’t kill people. People kill people.
But the story of Lemach is not even close to the Jewish tradition’s last word on the matter. The Mishnah, in Tractate Shabbat, records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of rabbis called the sages about whether one may carry weapons on Shabbat. According to Eliezer, weapons like swords, bows, or cudgels were considered “adornments” like jewelry or hair ribbons. Since these items are essentially like one’s clothing we don’t have to worry about them violating the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, he argues.
The sages disagree. They call these weapons a “disgrace” and point to the most famous prophetic text from the book of Isaiah to show that humanity’s goal is to someday make these weapons disappear: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The sages ultimately win this debate; later authorities rely more heavily on their opinion.
For most of our ancient ancestors their view of weapons fell somewhere between these two extremes. In ancient days, the sale of weapons was heavily regulated. Selling weapons to enemies was strictly forbidden since they might use them against you (Avodah Zarah 15b). Where these laws become interesting is over the question of who is worthy to buy weapons. Jewish law permits one to sell weapons to friendly neighbors and even to allied nations (Avodah Zarah 16a). However one cannot sell weapons of any kind to someone who has committed murder or to a “cowardly thief.” While the former limitation is obvious, it is less clear why selling weapons to a coward is condemned. The answer, our tradition teaches, is that it is a coward’s nature to panic when caught in a stressful situation. Weapons may not inherently be dangerous, but in the wrong hands they are uncontrollable.
The Dangerous Dog
While swords and spears featured heavily in the world of our forefathers, it was not uncommon for a person in the fifth or sixth century to keep a dangerous animal, usually a wild dog, on his property to protect himself from robbers. However, the owner of such a dog was not given full freedom to do as he wished with his animal. It is written in the Shulchan Aruch, the preeminent 16th-century Jewish law code, that in a normal city it is forbidden to raise a dangerous dog unless he is tied up with a metal chain (Choshen Mishpat 409:3). The thinking behind this ruling is that while a barking dog can deter robbers, the liability of letting the dog go free is too much since we don’t know whom the dog might attack.
This ruling differs starkly, however, in the outskirts of a village. Here, the Shulchan Aruch says, one may keep the dog untied at night as long as he is tied up by day. Here, because the nights were dark, help was far away, and danger was more prevalent, your dog could keep watch despite the risk.
In a way, the example of the village dog follows the general Jewish view that people have a right to defend themselves despite the risks to others. Classical Jewish law permits killing for self-defense: The Talmud teaches that if someone breaks into your house, you have a right to defend yourself, even if it is not clear that they mean to kill you (Sanhedrin 72a). However, the principle of self-defense isn’t limitless. The village dog still must be tied up by day because of the liability associated with letting it roam free. When danger is not at its most acute, societal accountability trumps personal protection.
Although the case of the dog lends itself to pragmatism, the case of the snake does not. According to classical Jewish law, there are a number of animals that are considered too dangerous to keep. In Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4, the sages list these animals as wolves, lions, bears, leopards, panthers, and snakes. Falling into a legal category called mu’ad, these animals are known as dangerous by nature. If they attack someone, their owner can’t claim that it was in any way an accident. He is assumed liable because he shouldn’t have them in the first place. And yet, in the discussion of these animals, Rabbi Eliezer, our pro-weapon enthusiast from above, jumps in. He argues that all these animals are trainable except one, the snake.
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Marc Katz is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Marc Katz is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.