Erica Brown

Blood Upon Our House

“You shall not bring blood upon your house.” (Deuteronomy 24:8)

One morning a few weeks ago, my husband walked into our bedroom and said, “There’s been a shooting at University of Maryland.” Not yet knowing the details but knowing one fact — our daughter is a student there — I did what every parent would do. I closed my eyes, held my breath and called her cellphone. She answered. I breathed. She had just heard the news and was about to call to let us know she was OK.

But all is not OK — not OK on the UMD campus, where there have been five gun-related incidents around campus in the past three weeks – and not OK in this country where the gun control issue has been reduced to a matter of partisan politics and incivility. We can’t even talk about it. The “loaded” debates are blinding us to the stark reality: too many people with mental illness and criminal records have access to guns. The UMD graduate student shot and killed one student, wounded another and killed himself. Next to his body police found a bag containing a fully-loaded, semi-automatic Uzi, several rounds of ammunition, a machete and a baseball bat.

Jewish law forbids the selling of weapons to those suspected of using them for criminal ends: “One should not sell them either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one grind any weapon for them, nor may one sell them stocks, chains or ropes… (BT Avoda Zara 15b). But we don’t have to go that far. The Talmud admonishes us not to keep a bad dog or a broken ladder at home because these can accidentally endanger family or visitors. In the Talmud, a hole in a public space must be covered lest anyone come close and trip into it as a result. We must put a parapet around a flat roof in case someone comes too near the edge and falls off. Precautions focus our attention on the issue of safety in the home. A gun is an object that kills. It does not belong in a house.

You can counter this by marshaling the Talmudic permission to kill someone who is pursuing you in murder. In Exodus 22:1, we even grant permission to strike a thief dead who is discovered breaking into one’s home; the murderer is blameless. Since the thief would likely kill the homeowner to escape being found, the homeowner acted in self-defense. This is true for American law as well.

But if we go down this road, we have to imagine a world where everyone — even children — have to be armed to stop someone else who is armed. It’s not only about owning a gun. It’s about knowing how to use it expertly and having it at precisely the moment when bedlam strikes. “Ain l’davar sof,” we say in Hebrew. To this, there is no end. And in this new universe of added security with a gun in every hand becoming a new American mantra like Hoover’s chicken in every pot, everyone is a potential suspect. Is this the world we want?

Contrast this to a Talmudic passage about Shabbat (BT Shabbat 63a). One “must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, or spear.” The sacredness of Shabbat cannot be marred by any instrument of violence. One sage counters that these implements are merely decorative. But others disagree citing the famous verse from Isaiah: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-knives…” If Shabbat is truly holy to us then aspire to the vision of Isaiah. Put the weapons away. Many have the custom — as our family does — not to make a blessing on challah in the presence of the knife blade. Blessings and knives just don’t go together.

Gun control should be the Jewish cause of our time. Our children should inherit a world where they feel safe enough to walk on a college quad without fear. They should feel safe enough to go to elementary school. But we are simply not outraged. We have come to accept murder rampages as a reality of everyday American life. If we believe that every legal mandate and mitzvah must be put aside to preserve life, then we are not fighting hard enough. We have not internalized the most basic Jewish impulse — that we are created in God’s image and must preserve and sustain the godliness in all of humanity. We cannot stand by the blood of our brothers and sisters. Check Leviticus 19:16.

I write this not because I am a Democrat or a Republican, an NRA member or a pacifist. I write this because I am a mother, and I am a proud American, and I am a committed Jew. And I cannot bear to see any more blood upon our house.

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).