This article originally appeared in Jewish Ideas Daily and is
reprinted with its permission.
Two mass shootings in the past month – in Aurora, Colorado, and Oak Creek,
Wisconsin – have focused American attention once again on the issue of guns. Are
guns a Jewish issue? Jewish organizations have expressed their opinions by their
statements and their silence.
The Reform movement’s Religious Action
Center has decried the recent shootings and called for “commonsense gun control
laws.” A blog on the Center’s website clarifies what the RAC thinks this means.
“The most effective way to prevent gun deaths,” it says, “is to reduce the
number of guns.”
An earlier editorial by a RAC associate director went
further. It decried the prospect of an armed and balkanized American society –
and derided the argument that “only when Jews have guns have they been able to
preserve Jewish honor and dignity.”
The RAC’s answer to threats that Jews
might face is tikkun olam
The president of the Conservative Rabbinical
Assembly made a more interesting comment on the shootings.
them, but also noted “the fragility of the fundamental social contract that
binds us to each other in a civil society.
Each and every assault on that
unwritten contract,” he observed, “erodes our sense of security, and in so
doing, threatens to make us that much less trusting, and less
This is undoubtedly true – and unhelpfully abstract. It
begs the question of whether it is the guns or the shooters that pose the real
The Orthodox Union condemned the shootings at the Sikh temple in
Wisconsin as an assault on religious freedom – but did not mention
While Orthodox rabbis, like rabbis of other denominations, have
undoubtedly sermonized on guns and violence, taking various positions,
Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America issued no public statement about the
Jewish exegesis related to guns is necessarily indirect.
Biblical and talmudic texts generally require people to secure possessions of
theirs, such as dangerous dogs, that pose safety hazards. There are prohibitions
on selling weapons to idol worshippers and criminals, lest the weapons be turned
against Jews. At the same time, there are complicating biblical and talmudic
pronouncements about moral freedom and pikuah nefesh
, saving a life.
one talmudic commentary on Deuteronomy, the prohibition on a woman’s wearing
men’s clothing includes a ban on her wearing weapons, the quintessential male
accoutrement. It follows that for men, wearing weapons is natural.
none of these sources figures in American Jews’ discussions of guns; instead,
there is near blanket opposition.
Why? At the center of the gun issue is
power: To whom does the positive and negative power of weapons rightfully
belong? Max Weber famously defined the state as an entity with a monopoly on
violence; and the American Jewish attitude towards guns, following Weber, cedes
all responsibility for the protection of individuals – of Jews – to
American Jews, as opposed to Jews through most of history,
unilaterally cede this power even though it is available to them.
issue is not simply Left versus Right. The Reform movement explicitly wishes to
restrict or prohibit individual gun ownership. In contrast, Orthodox silence on
the issue tacitly accepts both the legal status quo, which permits private guns,
and social norms, under which Jews do not own guns. The denominational positions
effectively converge. Guns are not for Jews.
One pathological consequence
of Jewish powerlessness has been the tendency to embrace weakness, rationalizing
it and the suffering it produces as elevated and noble.
is guilt regarding whatever power one does possess.
For American Jews,
who are not shy about wielding their social and economic power, the choice to
remain unarmed is perverse – but logical.
Jews also follow the prejudices
of their social class. Educated upper middle-class suburbanites, largely
untouched by gun violence, are notably opposed to guns. Their opposition
reflects intellectuals’ assumptions about the sources of and solutions to
violence, and blame is assigned to the technology.
True, the culture of
the shooters themselves is identified as the problem in certain cases – say,
But in other cases, such as inner cities, culture is quietly
ignored: Highlighting it might be thought racist. Expiating a sense of privilege
by restricting the rights of others is another hallmark of the educated upper
middle class. In this sense, too, Jews emulate their fellows and embrace
There is also a passive-aggressive element in the American
Jewish attitude: It cedes a monopoly on violence to government not just in
exchange for the government’s protection but as a way of establishing an
entitlement to – of demanding – such protection. Government, correspondingly,
offers sympathy to victims while accepting empowerment as their protector.
Unfortunately, criminals and terrorists have not agreed to the bargain. Thus,
the Jewish attitude, a form of pacifism, entails the occasional human
But the American social contract uniquely specifies that
government does not retain a monopoly on violence.
The country was
founded precisely in rebellion against such an idea, a rebellion that is burned
into the nation’s founding documents.
Moreover, the power of governments
to threaten liberties is fact, not paranoid fantasy; Jews have been victims of
state violence as much or more than non-state violence. The question of whether
to place total trust in the state for protection does not have a self-evident
Then there is the problem of guns and Zion. How many American
Jews are taken aback at seeing young Israeli men and women with assault rifles
slung on their shoulders? How much alienation from Israel comes from the
American Jewish desire that violence be impersonal and distant, rather than, as
in Israel, intensely personal? Guns are an imperfect last defense against
adversaries – governments, terrorists, home invaders. In rejecting guns, Jews
elect to put their full faith in government – also imperfect, as well as
haphazard, biased, even vindictive.
Placing faith in government rather
than in legal rights places faith not in laws but in human
Such a choice in the haphazard and political is necessarily
foolish. And faith in powerlessness is still worse, demeaning and potentially