Adam is Jerusalem U's social media Coordinator. Before moving to Israel, he spent over 25 years in informal Jewish education in the UK & California. He is also an experienced radio broadcaster and today lives in Jerusalem with his wife and twin sons.
Gun Control: Jewish Thoughts on a Loaded Subject
The terrible events in Orlando over the weekend, and the horrific shooting attack in Tel Aviv a few days before that, have once again shocked America and the western world. Such incidents of terrorism on our own democratic soil invite profound soul-searching as to how we can prevent such evil from happening again. They have also brought the issue of gun control back into the headlines and presidential campaigns - there are those who would ban all guns, making it harder for terrorists, criminals and homicidal nut jobs to get their hands on weapons, and there are those that believe ordinary citizens should have the right to bear arms, in order to defend themselves from the gun toting terrorists.
However, if you are hoping I will give you a definitive Jewish answer on this issue, you will be disappointed. What I can do is offer some ancient Jewish wisdom that shows that Judaism has something to say to help guide our discussions about this issue, even though we are talking about weapons that would not be invented until hundreds, even thousands of years, after these ideas were first recorded.
1. "Thou shall not kill" clearly doesn't mean 'never, ever, under any circumstances', because
the Torah itself talks about circumstances where we are permitted to take a life - for example "if, while breaking in, the thief is discovered, and he is struck and dies, [it is as if] he has no blood." Ex.22:1. "He has no blood" means 'he', the home owner, won't be blamed for the death of the thief. The Torah is telling us we can defend ourselves, even to the point of killing in self defense.
2. "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood." [I.e., do not stand by,] watching your fellow's death, when you are able to save him; for example, if he is drowning in the river or if a wild animal or a robber attack him. — [Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a] . Here The Talmud (the Oral Torah, completed 500ce) is going further - not just that we won't be blamed for a death, but that we will be blamed for inaction that causes a death! This is a mitzva ( a positive commandment) to intervene. The Shulchan Aruch (the "code of Jewish law" published in 1565) spells this out: “If one sees that someone is pursuing him with the intention to kill him, he is permitted to defend himself and take the life of he who is pursuing him”.
3. Judaism on owning weapons: The Talmud Shabbat 63a says "One may not go out on Shabbat with a sword, or a bow, .....or with a spear. ... the sages say they are nothing but a stain on him, for it is written: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [Isaiah 2:4]". In short - weapons are not a good thing, and not something to show off. Weapons are a necessity that in the ideal world Judaism aspires to (represented by Shabbat), we will not need anymore.
4. "One should not sell them either weapons or accessories of weapons" Talmud Avodah Zarah 15b The Talmud is discussing selling arms to people with suspect motivation or backgrounds. So while Jews are allowed to own weapons and defend ourselves according to the Torah, Jewish law does place limitations on who we allow to have weapons.
5. Guns in the house? Obviously classic Jewish sources don't discuss guns, but they do talk about owning a dangerous dog - not as silly a comparison as it might seem: The Talmud (Bava Kama) rules that we are not allowed to keep a dangerous dog in our homes, except where people live in dangerous areas, where if kept under lock and key during the day and allowed to roam within secure fences at night, a guard dog is permitted.
So what do we have? Judaism allows defending ourselves even if that means taking a life and Jew is commanded to intervene to save not just his own life, but someone elses life as well. On the other hand, weapons may be needed, but they are at best a necessary evil and not something we should aspire to. Jewish law warns us that weapons are something that as a society, we should be very careful of who we allow to have. If we do own something dangerous, Jewish law demands that we only do so if we have a good reason, and if we behave responsibly.
What is amazing, is that most of the sources quoted above were written from Roman times or earlier, and yet they seem to be talking about the world we live in today, with wisdom we could perhaps draw on to make our world a little safer.
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You can learn more about the foundations of Judaism and its treasury of 3,500 years' worth of wisdom by watching our video course Judaism101 .