Judaism and Gun Violence

Recently,  the non-partisan, gun violence-focused news outlet The Trace presented some devastating data on gun violence in America. Using six years of gun violence incidents, they created “An Atlas of American Gun Violence.”  The atlas allows users to put in their address, city, or state to see how the 190,000 gun violence incidents affect their “corner of the country.”

Regardless of your own personal stance on guns, the atlas is sobering. Because, while we may disagree on how to curb gun violence, I hope I can say with some confidence that the majority of rational Americans agree that we shouldn’t be in favor of gun violence. In other words, 190,000 incidents in six years is 190,000 incidents too many. And so, work by non-partisan groups like The Trace reminds us that we all have work to do in helping to decrease these incidents. After all, we are b’tzelem elohim–made in the image of God–and, as such, an act of gun violence against our fellow human is an act of violence against God. Thus, Judaism has much to say on this topic that can and should drown out partisan rancor and personal preference.

Like so much in life, I think it is helpful to begin with where we want to end. On this, the prophetic call from Isaiah 2:4 is clear:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war.

The hope for the prophets is that one day we will all be able to put down weapons of war and use them for agricultural means or for bettering and beautifying our world.  Guns of all kinds are today’s swords and spears, and it is Judaism’s prophetic call to work towards their removal for a peaceful existence. But, you might say, even Israel, the Jewish state, has guns. In fact, they need guns in order to remain safe. And so it is. In biblical times and in today’s age, Isaiah’s call remains a dream, a hope for a future that remains as distant now as it did then.

Thus, the Torah makes allowances. If we are to need weapons, if our safety and security are at stake, then we must be mindful, first and foremost, of the responsibility that comes with owning those weapons. While a great deal of gun violence is intentional, so much of it is accidental. If we own guns, or if we live in gun-permitting society, then we must do our part to make sure that guns are used responsibly only by those who intend no harm.  Deuteronomy 22:8 states:

When you build a new house, you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you do not bring blood on your house if anyone should fall from it.

Like so much in our Torah, we must move beyond the literal. Obviously this is not a  commandment that just deals with roofing; rather it is one that charges Jews with an understanding that our home should be a place of safety for all. In other words, if we are gun owners, we are commanded to ensure that they do not cause injury or death to friends, neighbors, or even those who reside within.

The  rabbis of the Talmud expand this understanding as they state in Bava Kamma 46a:

Rabbi Natan says: From where is it derived that one may not raise a vicious dog in his house, and that one may not set up an unstable ladder in his house? As it is stated: “You shall not bring blood on your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

According to the Talmud, then, one may not allow a hazardous situation to remain in his house.

A vicious dog is a much better comparison to a gun than a dangerous roof, but the idea is the same.   If you have something dangerous in your possession, something with the potential to kill, you are violating the Torah’s commandments, and placing  those  around you in danger.

But, to borrow one of our favorite gun control words, there is a loophole. Maimonides, in  his Mishneh Torah, explains:

There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, one has a well or a pit in his courtyard — — he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution (Murderer and the Preservation of Life 11:4).

The loophole, as the RAMBAM explains, is that if you must own a gun, you are obligated to keep it in a safe, locked and secure in order to not accidentally cause death and bring blood upon your house.

I must note that while the Torah and our Jewish sages may have made allowances for weapons, their views on them are clear. The Talmud, Shabbat 63a tells us:

A man may neither go out on Shabbat with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with an alla, nor with a spear. And if he unwittingly went out with one of these weapons to the public domain he is liable to bring a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer says: These weapons are ornaments for him; just as a man is permitted to go out into the public domain with other ornaments, he is permitted to go out with weapons. And the Rabbis say: They are nothing other than reprehensible and in the future they will be eliminated, as it is written: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is that of the minority, likening weapons as “ornaments;” but the sages disagreed, and the majority opinion was that displaying weapons around on Shabbat in the public domain is “nothing other than reprehensible.”  In other words, there is nothing beautiful about carrying guns, certainly not on Shabbat.  They are not ornaments to show or take pride in, but  reprehensible parts of society which, as the rabbis hope, will be removed and unnecessary in the future.

I hope that we can all agree that a world without weapons is one worth aspiring to,  that we would all love for our children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren to live in the land Isaiah prophesied about. I recognize that the work it will take to get there, the means by which we get there, is up for debate. But what I’ve hoped to share here with you this month is the fundamental Jewish principle that as Jews our  goal is the pursuit  of peace. Guns, like swords, spears, bows and arrows, are weapons of warfare. If we must own them, we are commanded to do so responsibly. And whether we own them or not, our goal is to not just hope for, but create, a world where they can be eradicated completely.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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