Monday, May 6, 2013

A Jewish View of Guns and Violence

Many sections of the Hebrew Bible constitute a testimony to the great violence, which people had to endure in Ancient times. War and insecurity were the norm, not the exception. The ways in which our ancestors referred to God reflected their violent surroundings: God is Adonai Tzeba’ot, “Lord of Hosts,” and Yish milchama, “Man of War.”
In the midst of such violent times, our people were able to create a system of values that helped them develop a more just and equitable society. So, why can’t we? Why can’t we end the violence in our cities and schools that destroys so many innocent lives? We are blessed with freedom from invasion and constant war; we live in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, so why do acquiesce to laws and regulations that make mass shootings in our malls and schools possible? Why do we continue to tolerate the laws that the gun industry has written, which do not represent Jewish values?
Recently, after a 20-year hiatus, gun legislation has resurfaced. It is too early to tell what will come of it or if anything will change for good, but the fact that the U. S. Senate is discussing it, on a bi-partisan way, is encouraging. All Reform Jews may not agree on every aspect of the divisive political issue that gun violence invokes, but we must all learn and struggle with what our tradition teaches about the use of weapons in general, and guns in particular.
The Torah is remarkably contemporary in its approach to the issue. After all, the issue violence perpetrated with weapons meant for defensive purposes only is not new –the misuse of weapons is as old as weapons themselves. How does Judaism deal with this issue?
One of the typical case studies found in the Torah is that of the “blood avenger.” If someone committed manslaughter, he could flee to a “city of refuge” and be safe from revenge. The cities of refuge could control who brought weapons into the city, with the understanding that the “blood avenger” may be tempted to violate the refuge status of the city. In this case, the rabbis of Talmud were in favor of regulating and controlling access to weapons (follow the link in my blog and read M. Katz’s piece on for a study of the relevant texts).
Katz concludes: “the risk of allowing weapons to fall into the hands of unstable people who may actually misuse them outweighs any consideration of defense.”
Just to be clear: The Jewish tradition is not pacifist. We Jews have had armies and weapons of all kinds, not only in Modern times but throughout the Middle Ages and back into ancient and Biblical times. Self-defense is a Jewish value. You can certainly protect yourself, says our tradition, but not at all costs. If in our eagerness to protect ourselves we facilitate the acquisition of weapons for illicit goals, then we are liable for the damage those misused weapons cause.
In the light of what our tradition has taught since ancient times, I cannot see how we can support the radical agenda of the gun-lobby and be true to our religious tradition. The approach of our tradition is not radical, but rather sensible and measured. According to our tradition, Jews are allowed to own weapons for personal use, but always keeping in mind how having this or that weapon affects others: other Jews, the mentally ill, criminals, and the safety of our cities and towns. Judaism is very different from American individualism. I find it very hard to understand survivalists and those prone to conspiracy theories –they seem so foreign to our tradition. We do everything as a community. Judaism is an ethical system based on balance approach and compromise. Judaism values the individual contributions to the greater cause of the Jewish people and by extension to society. Our ancient faith teaches us that we are better individuals when our community is better.
I fail to see how high capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons placed in the hands of individuals without universal background checks contributes to a built a better society. Plainly stated: If they do not contribute to the goal of a better society, they go against our Jewish values.
Our sages taught, kol yisrael arevim ze bazeh, all Jews are responsible for one another. The time has come for our nation to heed and learn the lesson of our tradition: We are all responsible. If violence plagues our malls and schools, we may not be guilty for the actions of others, but we are all responsible. In a democracy, we have no excuse, whether we own guns or not, whether we live in the safest neighborhoods or not, we are all responsible.
Please, join the discussion.

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