The Talmudic tractate Bava Batra primarily addresses issues related to an individual’s rights and obligations related to the property he [she] owns. On the “b side” of its seventh folio page our sages engage in what seems like a mundane tax/zoning issue. In reality the debate articulates an important, core value about individual rights vis-a-vis responsibilities owed to the community.
The issue at hand is related to the question of whether a homeowner living in the common “condominium” configuration of the day, a four-sided building comprised of households around a courtyard, can construct a gatehouse and charge the other residents for its construction. The mishnah containing this scenario opines that the resident who constructs the gatehouse can, indeed, pay for its construction by taxing his fellow residents. At first blush the mishnah’s conclusion seems very reasonable. The man built an improvement to the property and deserved to be repaid for his effort and financial outlay.
But the sages of the Gemara — commenting centuries later — are appalled by their earlier colleagues legal conclusion. The Stama d’Gemara, the anonymous voice of the Gemara, objects citing a story about the prophet Elijah:
Is this to say that making a gatehouse is beneficial? But wasn’t there that pious man, with whom the prophet Elijah was accustomed to speak, who built a gatehouse, and afterward Elijah did not speak with him again?
Elijah, the prophet considered by Hazal (our sages) to be the one who will herald the arrival of the Messiah and who will settle all unresolved Talmudic questions, is utilized by our amoraic sages (rabbis of the Gemara) to present a critical critique of our tannaitic rabbis (Rabbis of the Mishnah). In the purported case, Elijah breaks off his friendly relationship with a pious man who did exactly what the Mishnah clearly permits. Going back and forth, presenting different sets of facts of how the gatehouse was supposedly built, the ultimate issue at hand boils down to whether the gatehouse allows the poor of the community to have access to the “condominium complex” in order to seek alms. The needs of the community’s poor supersede those of the condo residents. In the opinion of the Talmud’s anonymous voice, the man who constructs a gatehouse that locks out the poor and creates a wall of uncaring about the outside world has no right to recoup his costs.
Here’s the important take-away. The Gemara seeks to disabuse us of the notion that individual rights and needs “trump” all others, that the realm of the individual or a relatively small group of individuals, stands above that of the larger community. In other words, the scope of the rights of the individual must give way to those of society at large, especially in the case where society is negatively impacted and harmed by the unimpeded reach of those of the individual.
I’ve thought a lot about this sugya (talmudic discussion) in the wake of the latest mass shooting. With the above core Jewish value in mind, I find it impossible to abide the notion that one’s right to unfettered and unlimited guns is a greater right than that of the society to be protected from harm. Caring about the needs, concerns and — in the case at hand — the safety of the community should preempt those of the individual.
“But we live in a nation with a wall that separates religion and state. Your particular religious truth should have no exclusivity here.” Yes, that’s true. My goal is to provide a Jewish lens through which other Jews can look at this issue, one which I believe is one of the most pressing social issue we face as a nation. As an American Jew I would point out that Jefferson’s riff on Locke’s conception of natural rights (life, liberty, and property) places the right to “life” before the right to “liberty” and the right to “happiness.” Without life the other two are irrelevant. When a child is mowed down by a semiautomatic weapon he or she will no longer know liberty or happiness.
Like the other residents of the courtyard-centered building we have the right and The responsibility to say, “No.” we will no longer allow narrow self-interest to imperil the common good. We will tear down the gatehouse for the sake of our communities. We will tear it down for the sake of our children.