Todd Berman

The Ambiguity of the Gun

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

“If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first).” (Sanhedrin 72a)

“A man should not go out [on the Sabbath] with a sword, nor a bow, nor a shield, nor a spear…Rabbi Eliezer says they are his adornments…The sages say [weapons] are only a disgrace.” (Mishna Shabbat 6:4)

This past Israeli Memorial Day, several friends who recently moved to Israel from the U.S. lamented the militarization of the Memorial Day programs in their children’s schools. The programs startled them both emphasizing soldiers’ deaths and by including military displays. At my children’s school, Yoharam Gaon’s tragic song, “The Ballad of the Medic” played in the background as little boys dressed in oversized IDF uniforms acted out the battle. (I must admit, I always cry when I hear that song – which can be a problem when driving on Memorial Day as it plays on the radio. Click here for the Hebrew/English lyrics). My friends asked poignant and pointed questions about age appropriate ceremonies and the trauma caused by these types of events.

Yet, here in Israel, we live a conflicted life. Praying for peace yet always being prepared for war. From rabbinic to modern times, Jews have often reluctantly chosen to pick up arms. While self-defense and salvation of the innocent is paramount, fear of hurting others balances out the dangers of military fetishism. Commenting on Jacob’s fear and pain during military like preparations in anticipation of meeting his brother Esau, Rashi says “He was afraid lest he be killed, he was in pain lest he kill [others]” (Rashi, Commentary to Gen. 32:8) A statement attributed to Golda Meir, the former Israeli Prime Minister almost channels Rashi , “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” Daniel Boyarin in his controversial work, Unheroic Content, suggests that pre-Zionist Jewish culture denigrated military prowess as a manifestation of “Goyim Naches” or non-Jewish activities. With such ubiquitous push back against militarism, how does one inculcate a pride of service in defense of the State.

There can be no doubt that self-defense is of critical import to the Jewish State. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein eloquently described this necessity and the echoes military service finds in biblical Jewish writings. In his “The Ideology of Hesder” Rav Lichtenstein describes the need for army programs in a religious context and points out the unfortunate necessity of carrying a gun.

In one sense, therefore, insofar as army service is alien to the ideal Jewish vision, Hesder (military yeshiva program) is grounded in necessity rather than choice. It is, if you will… a post facto response to a political reality imposed upon us by our enemies. In another sense, however, it is very much… a freely willed option grounded in moral and halakhic decision. … We advocate it because we are convinced that, given our circumstances – would that they were better – military service is a mitzvah, and a most important one at that. Without impugning the patriotism or ethical posture of those who think otherwise, we feel that for the overwhelming majority of bnei torah (students) defense is a moral imperative.

Army is an unfortunate necessity. On the one hand it is a religious-ethical imperative to serve while on the other all things military are responses to an undesirable situation. Our soldiers engage in a holy mission to protect our country; yet, there is an even higher and holier calling to navigate to the illusive island of peace. The tension created between where we are and where we should be simply reinforces the question of how to motivate young men and women to rise to the occasion of joining the military without at the same time idealizing the use of force. How to forge high morale without worshiping the use of force?

Navigating this tension is no easy task. In the past heady days of the foundation of the State of Israel all the way through the debacle of ’73 if not the war in Lebanon in the 1980’s, both those on the left and those on the right carefully but forcefully leaned towards a pride of service. However, with lack of peace, oscillation of terror activity, and increased growth in the areas taken in the wake of the Six Day War, this balance seems to have shifted. Whereas once the socialist kibbutzim produced leaders of the military, now more and more those ranks are filled by either religious soldiers or supporters of a more right wing political establishment.

Groups such as Breaking the Silence, Peace Now, and others highlight (and many would suggest fabricate) ethical lapses in the IDF and often even support refusal to serve. At the same time one finds some on the right who laud the use of force and glory of the gun to excess. As of late, I have read several blogs and Facebook posts by well meaning reservists who come close to crossing the line from rather immature macho-bravado to something bordering on idolatry of the army. To be sure, we do not live in an easy neighborhood and the dialectic pull back and forth between the prophetic sense of loving our fellow man versus being prepared to kill him if necessary to defend our home is soul scorching. Maimonides famously advocated moderation in all things and a balanced approach which would certainly be appropriate in our circumstance. But, as Rambam himself acknowledged, walking the razors edge of eschewing violence and seeking peace while holding our sword and shield at the ready is complicated on a good day. Weapons, our sages tell us, must always be seen as a disgrace; but, one we can ill afford to live without.

This brings me to the horrors of gun violence in the United States. From our perch half a world away, Israelis I’ve spoken to are dumbfounded by both the violent shootings as well as the gun-love seemingly in some sectors which is visible in the media. If in Israel, we must equip the army for existential threats, in the U.S. it seems as if the weapon itself has taken on a life of its own. All around me I see people carrying side-arms and even more serious weapons. But rarely, with the exceptions I mentioned above (who are usually U.S. citizens by the way) I have I felt an attitude of entitlement. A number of years ago, in the town where I live, a cool headed local hero had the mindfulness to shoot a suicide bomber. It was the jacket worn on a hot day which was the tell tale sign. I have friends who have had to discharge their weapons in order to save life. But the claims of rights and privileges and pride of possession is absent here. American movies, video games, and pop culture have only added fuel to this fire. Let me be clear, I appreciate those who want top of line weapons to hunt. If not bound by Jewish law, perhaps I would join the ranks of those who pursue deer and geese. But beyond seeing weapons as necessary tools, I get the feeling something else is at play. In Israel, we have strict gun laws – despite that fact, many do have weapons and wear them in plain sight. In conversation about installing such legal regulations in the such as a universal registration, one commentator with vast law enforcement experience claimed that such legislation violates inherent rights which predate the constitution would cause a civil war. I’m not talking solely about the legal issue – something else. I recoil at the feeling that guns are good and a right as opposed a necessity for some specific task be it defense or hunting I would be the last person to suggest using Jewish law as a basis for American legal decision; however, the Jewish ethic regarding weaponry is an important voice. Until the conversation changes, legislation will go nowhere. The rabbis taught that weapons should be viewed as something almost unclean – a disgrace – not a source of pride.

Jewish law and tradition is far from a paean to pacifism. “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first)” declare the sages; however, both here in Israel and in America its time to have a critical conversation of the place of guns in our global society.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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