The following blog post gives the view and opinions of its author, Rabbi Jill Levy, and does not represent an official opinion or position of the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC of Houston, nor does it necessarily reflect the opinion and views of any member, employee or board member of the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC of Houston. The purpose of this blog, and specifically this post, is to present how Jewish texts can enlighten contemporary issues. We do not expect that everyone will draw the same conclusions. As Rabbi Ishmael teaches in the Talmud, “A Biblical verse is like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces... just as the rock is split into many splinters, so also may one biblical verse convey many teachings.” (BT Sanhedrin 34a). We hope you’ll share your thoughts and opinions with others in the comments section below.
Anyone who causes one life to be lost from Israel, it is as if they have destroyed the entire world. Anyone who saves one life from Israel, it is as if they have preserved an entire world. – Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.
If gun ownership can save even one life then shouldn’t we support this practice? So far, in 2015, there have been 687 defensive gun uses. After all, the Talmud teaches that everyone has the right to self-defense. It states, “If someone comes to kill you, act first and kill him.” (Brachot 62b)
At the same time, there have also been 1071 accidental shootings, 1840 children ages 0-17 killed/injured, 7439 deaths and 14,781 injuries this year. (For more up to date statistics, click here) Ratios typically range around one justifiable shooting for every 32 murders, suicides or accidental deaths annually. You can read about victim stories here from the bradycampaign.org.
As Jews, we have a tradition that cares deeply about the importance of human life, and as Americans we have a public safety issue that we cannot ignore. The United States currently leads the world in firearm ownership and firearm-related deaths, averaging 88 guns per 100 people and 82 deaths each day due to gun violence, including eight children under the age of 18.
We all want to be safe and secure in our own homes and outside. The question becomes what is the best way to achieve that security and should guns play a role?
There are a number of texts that we can draw on from Jewish tradition that speak to this issue. I am presenting the following three texts that guide my beliefs:
1. There is an obligation to remove safety hazards from your home
When you build a new house, then you shall make a fence around your roof, that you bring not blood upon your house, if any one falls from there. - Deuteronomy 22:8
Jewish tradition teaches that we have a responsibility to make sure that the objects in our home do not present a risk to others. Just as a dangerous roof must be secured, at a minimum, guns must be kept in a locked safe.
The problem is that locking a gun only reduces risk by about 70%. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation is for guns not to be in the home at all.
One could argue that a gun is equal to a parapet keeping those in the house safe from intruders. But, the annual per capita risk of death during a home invasion is 0.0000002, or almost zero. In comparison, for every time a gun is used legally in self-defense at home, there are four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides and 11 attempted or completed suicides. (Read more about it on Slate.) At a minimum, gun owners need to take serious precautions with their weapons.
The Jewish law code, the Shulchan Aruch, gives a similar example in the case of a dangerous dog. It says, “In a normal city it is forbidden to raise a dangerous dog unless he is tied up with a metal chain.” (Choshen Mishpat 409:3). Here, the dangerous dog is something that presents a danger to others around him. Even if he is intended to warn off “bad guys” he can kill or injure anyone. The dangerous dog is a reminder that guns present a threat to anyone in its radius.
At a minimum, gun owners should keep their guns in a locked safe.
2. Do not place a stumbling block before the blind
And for every stumbling block that threatens lives, one must remove it, protect oneself from it, and be exceedingly careful in its regard; as it says: “You shall guard and protect your lives,” (Deuteronomy 4:9). And if it is not removed instead is placed in front of those who come to danger, one has violated a positive commandment and has violated “bring not blood” - Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 427.
Guns fall into this category of stumbling block as they far too often fall into the wrong hands leading to devastating consequences. While Jewish tradition values self-defense, the truth is that far too often the guns we think we own for protection are used for harm. Do we truly feel so unsafe that we are willing to risk a toddler or teen accidentally gaining access to our gun? The majority of gun use is attributed to suicide, domestic violence, criminal homicide and accidental death and the Jewish community is not immune from any of these tragedies.
As Rabbi David Bleich, Rosh Kollel of YU says, “Jews ought to be in the vanguard of those seeking to impress upon our legislators that handguns are indeed “stumbling blocks” which must not fall into the hands of the “blind.” Criminals do commit crimes, and it is precisely because “morally blind” criminals are disposed to crime that Judaism teaches that it is forbidden to provide them with the tools of their trade.”
We must ensure strict gun laws which include background checks, safety and licensing requirements, and restrictions for people with a criminal history.
3. Guns promote a culture of war, not peace
A man must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, lance, or spear; and if he goes out, he incurs a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer said, "They are ornaments for him. But the sages maintain they are merely shameful, for it is said, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift sword up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." - Shabbat 63a
In Jewish tradition, weapons are not to be objects of desire as in a perfect world they will not be necessary. We are supposed to strive towards an ideal and owning weapons removes us from our ultimate goal of freedom from war. As Rabbi David Saperstein says, “Our gun-flooded, violence-prone society has turned weapons into idols. And the appropriate religious response to idolatry is sustained moral outrage.” The more we value our guns, the further we remove ourselves from a culture of peace. We must be vigilant in building communities that idolize peace, not weapons.
Each year at Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar as a wakeup call to ourselves and our community to what is broken in the world. As Americans we have been in denial about gun violence for too long. Jewish tradition values each and every life. I believe that it is time we wake up to the truth that more guns equal more death by guns. While we may think they keep us safer, they actually put us and our children in more danger. I challenge us to hear the call of the shofar and rise to the voice of change:
- If you own a gun consider turning it in, or at the very least, locking it up.
- Ask friends if they have an unlocked gun in their home before sending your child to their house for a play date. Join the "Ask the Question Campaign" at askingsaveskids.org.
- Insist to our political leaders that we need stricter gun laws through bradycampaign.org
- Ask yourself in what ways do I promote a culture of violence instead of heeding Isaiah’s call?
May this New Year be one of peace and safety for all of those in our community and beyond. Shanah Tovah.
--Rabbi Jill Levy