Guard Yourself Diligently: An American-Jewish Journey

American Jews have had a complex relationship with antisemitism and its practitioners during our long history in the United States. Unlike African Americans and other ethnic groups, we mostly white Ashkenazim have been able to blend into the larger framework of American society. (As more Jews of color become part of our ranks, that is changing.) The earlier generations of our immigrant ancestors who often experienced antisemitic hatred developed into our highly integrated Jewish community blessed with wealth, social acceptance, as well as cultural and political influence. We’ve truly lived the American dream because until recently, our community has been able to balance our Jewishness and our Americanness successfully, as the dangers of antisemitic violence and discrimination appeared to be fading. America, we had decided, was different for the Jews, and for the most part that remains true. But it’s not entirely true. We know all too well that the number of hate crimes against American Jews has spiked over the last several years to a very worrying degree. America’s vastly increased political polarization and the muscular resurgence of white supremacist extremism driving a lot of it present us with ugly realities.

With increased attacks on Jewish individuals and communities, as well as increased gun violence resulting in mass atrocities across America, we’re all speaking a lot more anxiously these days about safety and security. This coming high holy day season – the first that at least feels fully post-COVID – poses a great problem for synagogues and other Jewish institutions across America: On the one hand, how do we develop thoughtful awareness of who and what poses a real danger to us and act to protect ourselves and each other? On the other hand, how do we continue to be in sacred places that are welcoming and open to all Jews, and by extension, all people, in all their diversity and complexity?

As an outgrowth of lived experience, Judaism has developed sound, religiously based wisdom and rules to begin addressing the questions I’ve posed. Let me offer a few, admittedly incomplete, halakhic (Jewish legal) insights.

According to Jewish law, guarding one’s safety and security begins as a two-fold imperative of self-defense. We are not only allowed but obligated to fight, and even God forbid, to kill in self-defense. Since the time of the Maccabean revolt against Greek imperialist aggression, Jews in the diaspora and in Israel have followed the far-reaching leniency of violating even Shabbat to fight off or prevent our enemies from killing us. (I Maccabees 2:31-41). One might argue that this is not a leniency but a stringency: when others seek to harm you, God demands that you set aside other restrictions and protect yourself, because safety and security are surpassingly important. This obligation of self-defense is extended in Jewish law to preemptive self-defense as well. The Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72a, makes clear that if one comes to kill you, you may – perhaps even must – kill him first. In the wrong hands, rules like this one are waved easily about by racists who justify murdering people whose backgrounds they don’t like, using the claim that they felt suspicious or scared of that person’s murderous intentions. (Think of how a Florida court exonerated George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin and violated his civil rights, using such  arguments.) In its wisdom, Jewish law requires clear evidence and universally accepted legal presumptions of mortal threat, not just your personal presumptions before you take such a drastic action. Still, this rule indicates that Jewish law is not pacifist in the least. We may and must protect ourselves from those who wish to harm us, even if we need to use violence.

There is ongoing debate among American Jewish institutions and leaders about the value of taking self-defense into our own hands by arming lay people. There is no good evidence that this is effective, and in fact, there is plenty of evidence that it can do far more harm than good. Jewish Federation of North America’s Secure Community Network strongly advises that we hire security professionals. My reading of Jewish law leads me to the even more stringent conclusion that we have an obligation to outsource armed self-defense to people who are professionally trained. Here is why.

Basing himself on the biblical law requiring a fence around one’s flat roof to prevent falling fatalities, (Deuteronomy 22:8), Maimonides extends the rule to a wide variety of measures we must take to prevent people from being hurt or killed (Chabad-Touger translation):

It is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as Deuteronomy 4:9 states: “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment, and violates the negative commandment: “Do not cause blood to be spilled.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Murderers And Guarding Life, 11:5)

Maimonides’ use of this verse from Deuteronomy 4:9 is interesting. In context, it has nothing to do with prevention and personal safety; it’s about diligence in remembering the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people. Further, though the verse is used once in a Talmudic story to teach about avoiding physical danger, (Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot 32b), it appears that Maimonides creatively appropriated it to make the legal point that ensuring the safety of others through prevention is an explicit law of the Torah. I will venture that Maimonides would be quite unhappy with individuals who lack expertise running around with dangerous weapons, no matter how sincere they may be or empowered they may feel in trying to protect the community. Maimonides made this point again when he ruled that:

It is permitted to sell weapons to the soldiers of the country in which one lives, because they defend the Jewish inhabitants of the land. (Laws Concerning Murderers, 12:13.  Chabad-Touger translation)

Like his predecessors, Maimonides was quite wary about providing the non-Jews of his time with weaponry and its raw materials, given the fraught and dangerous relationship Jews often had with their host societies. Even so, he recognized the importance of trained and standing law enforcement to protect people from violence.

We now know that Jewish law permits, even requires, us to defend ourselves vigorously and that it demands we do this in the safest way possible. How can Jewish law help us to protect ourselves without becoming paranoid or shutting others out of the community? Remember that achieving this balance is not only vital to the safety and security of those connecting with us, but also to our health as a community. We want to be safe communities, not prisons or military fortresses.

Though I don’t know that they ever codified it as law, the Rabbis of the Talmud taught an ethical principle that is both helpful and a challenge to us. In the minor Talmudic tractate, Derekh Eretz Rabbah 5:3, we learn the following (Sefaria translation):

You should regard anyone who visits you as a criminal, but you should also show that person the same respect that you would to a great rabbi (lit. the great Rabban Gamliel).

This idea is given popular expression in Hebrew by the phrase:  kab-deihu v’chash-deihu, honor a person while also suspecting that person. How can we possibly fulfill such an oxymoronic mandate? Perhaps that is the point of this teaching. Our relationships with people we don’t know, or don’t yet know, are complicated. We want to be friendly and to trust other people, but we also want to stay safe. Some people enter our lives with nothing but good intentions and good hearts, and others don’t. This Talmudic teaching is reminding us that, personally and institutionally, our job is to practice courageous hospitality while also being on guard for others’ hostility. This is a general principle:  in general, you should embrace those you don’t know with guarded graciousness and watchful welcoming until you get to know them.  Most important, note the word “anyone” in our teaching, in the Hebrew kol b’nei Adam. Anyone and everyone who is new to us should be technically regarded with guarded graciousness and watchful welcoming. Security experts have developed ways to tell if someone might be a threat based upon specific erratic behaviors that need to be watched. However, to single out someone for profiling merely because of how they look, their race, their dress, or a visible disability that makes them appear different, is not only cruel and unjust, it also misses the point of these teachings: to make us ever vigilant and ever welcoming with everyone.

None of this is pleasant to discuss, especially before the high holydays. However, it’s important that we understand our tradition’s guidance on all these matters, so that we can plan for our own protection using its effective wisdom. May we and all our fellow Jews and American citizens never have to employ any of this wisdom actively and may every Shabbat and holiday we celebrate be filled with peace. And if we ever do have to defend ourselves, may God give us the strength to do so robustly, courageously, and wisely.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020.
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