Saturday, September 20, 2014

Peace vs. Self-Defense: Which Wins in the Jewish Debate on Gun Control?

The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) issued a statement about how we need gun control to mitigate gun violence. Rather than bite the bullet, a few rabbis broke rank and endorsed a counter-statement saying how self-defense is decidedly a Jewish value. This is another case of "two Jews, three opinions,".....or wait, was that "three Jews, five opinions?" In either case, what we have here are two conflicting values in Judaism. On the one hand, Jews are meant to pursue peace (רודף שלום). On the other hand, we have such an appreciation for life that self-defense is permissible under Jewish law. Irrespective of secular society or debates on the Second Amendment, how does Jewish law view the issue? Are there certain halachically acceptable restrictions on gun ownership? If so, what are they? Can Jews carry guns to protect themselves, even on Shabbat, or would Jews be steering too far away from pursuing peace by doing so?

Let's first mention the idea that peace is a Jewish ideal. It is such an ideal that G-d shows us in Genesis 18 that peace trumps truth. The Talmud (Gittin 59b) says that the entirety of Torah is based on peace. Proverbs 3:17 says that the ways of Torah are those of pleasantness and peace (שלום). In the Talmud (Shabbat 63a), the Sages said it was shameful to carry swords (although if we want to extrapolate that to a modern-day context, it could also apply to guns), and do so based on the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 2:4 of "beating their swords into plowshares."

What Rabbi Eleizer, who was considered one of the greatest rabbis of his generation, pointed out in Shabbat 63a is that we do not live in the Messianic era. As I brought up a couple of weeks ago when analyzing the Torah law of the woman captured in war, we live in an imperfect, messy world that can be downright dark and cruel. We can do our utmost to live according to our ideals, but we also have to remember that we live in a world where there are a lot of people who don't necessarily share our ideals. In spite of democratization, people still commit crimes. From a Jewish view, we have to contend with rising Antisemitism and hate crimes against Jews, not only in America, but on a worldwide level. Until the Messiah arrives, we have to come to terms with the fact that we live in a world that creates situations that necessitate self-defense. Fortunately for us, Judaism unquestionably allows for self-defense. If someone comes to kill you, the Talmud (Berachot 58a) tells you that you "get up earlier to kill that person" (also see Exodus 22:1 and Talmud Sanhedrin 72a). As the aforementioned counter-statement illustrates, not only is being armed a sign of freedom (Exodus 13:8), but Chanukah is essentially a celebration of Jewish self-defense, among other things.  

The difficulty with applying Jewish values to twenty-first century society is not only a temporal issue, but also one of political entities and overall legal context. We live in democratic societies. The legal authorities for much of Jewish history have been decentralized and under non-democratic societies. How businesses interact with government and how Jews interact with non-Jews is very different now than it was back then. How much of what is in Jewish law can inform us on how we feel about gun control from a religious standpoint?

Jews are commanded to take such precautions as putting parapets on their roofs because Judaism requires us to have the foresight to prevent dangerous situations (Talmud Baba Kama, 15b), which is a good springboard for discussing the overlap between Jewish values and public policy. If you live in a dangerous neighborhood, the laws of pikuach nefesh (preservation of human life) take precedence, even over observing Shabbat laws, which is why carrying a gun on Shabbat for purposes of self-defense is permissible. On the other hand, Judaism does not permit free-for-all gun ownership. You cannot sell firearms to someone you know will commit criminal acts (Talmud, Avodah Zara 15b; Yoreh De'ah 151:5-6). If a gun presents a clear and present danger to you or others, like someone with a severe case of depression and suicidal tendencies and acts as a stumbling block before the blind (per Leviticus 19:14), you cannot own a gun because having dangerous objects around is prohibited by Jewish law (Baba Kamma 15b, 46a, 79a; Choshen Mishpat, 427, 409:3). Since suicidal tendencies are brief, abrupt, and powerful, not to mention that firearm suicide is the most common firearm death, perhaps under the idea of avoiding putting a stumbling block before the blind (lifnei iver), a brief waiting period to acquire a gun to have those tendencies subside isn't the worst policy in the world. If we are worried about enabling criminals to commit more gun-related crimes, we would need to have a serious discussion on "common sense" gun control and whether gun control laws take guns out of criminal hands, do nothing, or exacerbate the situation.

Postscript: I would love to live in a world without violence. However, we cannot live in our idealized version of what we think the world should be like. We need to interact with the world as it is, and go from there to take steps and make it a more peaceful one. Since safety and preventing violence are concerns on both sides of the argument, we need to make sure that whatever it is that whatever were are advocating for or opposing addresses the efficacy of said policies. We as individuals can partake in political activism to engender change in either direction, but halacha ultimately does not have authority over how gun laws are dictated, at least in America. Israel, that is a different story. Regardless, how we personally craft our response to gun violence, self-defense, or gun control should keep Jewish values in mind, as well as how well policies work to actualize those values. What I hope for is that the Messiah comes soon so we don't have to have this argument anymore. However, until that day occurs, I am going to stick to my guns by saying that given the Jewish sources, as well as our current socio-political situation and evidence we have on various forms of gun control, the argument for self-defense is still the one of higher caliber.

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