Ask the Rabbis | Gun Control
Should Jews be for or against the
right to bear arms?
For. The Torah implores each of us to be responsible for our own safety and not rely on governments. In the words of Moses: “And you shall very much safeguard your souls” (Deuteronomy 4:15). Later, the ancient rabbis would state it more dramatically: “One who comes to slay you, rise up (preempt his intent) and slay him” (Berachot 58a). They applied this principle as well to situations where someone other than yourself is in danger (Leviticus 19:16, Sanhedrin 57a). So there is not only a right to bear arms but a duty to make sure you have the means at hand to defend yourself, your family and the stranger in the street, whether by bearing arms, learning self-defense or chanting Kabbalistic incantations. Whatever works for you.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
As Gilda Radner might have said in her persona as Roseanne Roseannadanna, “What’s all the fuss I hear about bearing arms? Why can’t people walk around in short-sleeved shirts?” If told that “bearing arms” had to do with owning weapons, she would still wonder why it is such a big deal—why we can’t allow people to own guns while also putting in place better controls and background checks and limiting the types of guns that ordinary citizens can purchase.
Traditional Jewish teaching inveighed against hunting and causing unnecessary cruelty to animals. But classical Jewish law also says that if someone breaks into your house, you have a right to defend yourself. At the same time, the principle of self-defense isn’t limitless, and the village dog still must be tied up by day because of the liability associated with letting it roam free.
Of course, John Lennon could imagine a day when there would be “nothing to kill or die for,” and Isaiah, long before him, could prophesy a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares.” But until those days come, bearing arms and doing so responsibly will continue to be a big deal.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
As a rabbi who follows shmirat shalom, the Torah of Nonviolence, I find the answer very clear. There are passages in our texts and traditions that promote violence and those that promote nonviolence and peace. We have to choose which pathway we feel best preserves and enhances human life and maintains social justice. I stand with those who read Jewish tradition as did Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1936-46, who said, “Through what means do we blot out Amalek and . . . those who glorify the sword? How, and in what manner are we to bring an end to the world’s militarism? ‘Evil cannot be extirpated by evil’ means terror cannot be eliminated through the use of counter-terror. Therefore, one cannot destroy a ‘strong arm’ with a ‘strong arm’…About this it is said, ‘Write this in a book of remembrance,’ that is to say: Wage war against the sword with the book.”
Most rabbis before the Holocaust defined Judaism as a religion that rejects “the hands of Esau.” The violence of the Holocaust has shaken our faith in the wisdom of nonviolence. My faith in compassion and nonviolence, however, is based not on idealism but on the documented history of nonviolent civilian resistance movements over the past 150 years, including the village of Le Chambon during the Holocaust—where villagers risked their lives to hide hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. This history demonstrates that nonviolence is a much more effective tool for resistance to oppression than violent methods. We need the courage as a community to resist the alluring but dead wrong logic of “arms” as an effective tool of physical security. Instead let us educate ourselves about nonviolent alternatives in our own tradition.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence
Our Jewish foundational texts, filled with values-based regulations, align with our foundational American “well-regulated” right to bear arms. Jewish law permits ownership of weapons—but only with good reason, responsibly exercised and with clear limits imposed. The NRA may howl, but this Jewish pro-regulation view comports with today’s best American thought. Well-regulated steps like universal background checks, criminalizing gun trafficking, info-sharing across all levels of law enforcement and banning high-capacity clips are supported by most Americans (even most gun owners) and are deeply consonant with our Jewish values.
Mordechai Kaplan bade us to consciously “live in two civilizations,” the best of one informing the other. Like Americanism, Judaism cherishes freedom, always yoked with responsibility. Emphasizing one’s freedom to shoot over others’ freedom to live fails the test. We must bring the prophetic, justice-seeking, lifesaving, pro-reasonable-regulation Jewish perspective proudly to bear in the public square.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
The Talmud teaches, “He who takes one life, it is as though he has destroyed the universe, and he who saves one life, it is as though he has saved the universe” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). While the high value placed on life is clearly evident in these passages, we also live in the real world.
It is evident in Jewish texts that our ancestors advocated for the right to bear arms. They lived in fear of some different dangers from the ones we fear today: wild animals, persecution and thievery. The right did not go unchecked. The Talmud sets limits on when one can carry weapons (not on Shabbat) and who can own weapons (not the child, the coward, the unstable person or one who does not understand how to use them). A person does have the right to protect oneself and one’s property, but even that right is limited. The Talmud gives us parameters and sets social standards of accountability for such cases. Jews do have the right to bear arms. Jews also have the obligation to protect life and assure public safety.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Our tradition teaches us that human life is sacred and that each of us is created in the Divine image. Therefore, we must directly confront gun violence so that our nation is not marred, nor the years measured, by senseless massacres. At the same time, it should be noted that not all Jewish sources come to the same conclusion. Some support a right to bear arms: For example, Exodus 22:1 permits killing an intruder as a justifiable homicide. Rashi explains that even when the thief has not shown deadly intent, one can assume that the thief is prepared to murder should the owner resist. Talmudic sources (Berachot 58a, Yoma 85b) also recognize the need for home defense.
The sages understood that not everyone is entitled to own a weapon. The Talmud forbids the sale of weapons to those suspected of murder (Avodah Zarah 15b) or to anyone who might resell the weapons to suspected murderers. In sum, Jewish tradition recognizes that every life is sacred; at the same time, some of our texts balance the right to own weapons with the safety prescriptions necessary to assure that the innocent are protected. Should a Jew be for or against the right to bear arms? That depends upon the individual’s application of Jewish sources to our situation today.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
In principle, Jews should be for the right to bear arms. The tradition teaches that self-defense is a right—in fact, a mitzvah. In practice, Jews should restrict—ideally, prohibit—carrying guns because this is a life-threatening practice. (Such a sharp distinction between principle and practice is a very Talmudic approach.)
Judaism’s highest value is life. To save a life, it is a mitzvah to override 610 of the 613 commandments in the Torah. It is prohibited to keep a dangerous animal or pet in the house because it may harm or kill someone. If there is a place at the home where people are at risk of death by falling, the law of Maakeh requires building a parapet or protective enclosure to guard life. Conclusion: bearing arms, i.e., keeping guns in the house, should be outlawed.
To be fair, many people keep guns because they hunt. In the old days, when hunting was a source of food, one could defend the practice. Even then, most Jews looked down on hunting as incompatible with Jewish values. Today, when hunting is mostly a recreational sport, it surely violates the laws of reverence for life and tzaar baalei chayim—not to cause pain to other living creatures.
True, the right to bear arms is established and protected by the Second Amendment. However, this right was set up in reaction to the behavior of the English monarchy, which oppressed Americans, extorted their taxes, imposed soldiers on the local population and tried to crush their move for independence. Today, democracy is so entrenched that there is no chance the government would act despotically in these ways. The police and the army protect people and work for them. Under these circumstances, the right to bear arms should have been repealed long ago. The entrenched insistence on gun possession is overlaid with elements of paranoia and conspiracy thinking, which represent danger to a civil peaceful society. And in general, Jews do not do well in societies marked by conspiracy theories and paranoia.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
I am a supporter of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which grants individuals the right to self-defense. I belong to a nation whose history is largely characterized by our defenselessness and constant brutalization at the hands of those with greater power.
However, Maimonides’ dictum of “moderation in all things”—that perfection is to be found in the synthesis of extremes—is wholly applicable in evaluating the ideal reach of the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms must be limited enough to protect innocent citizens from the aggression of the armed. Deranged individuals with identifiable mental illness engaging in mass murder have become so common in America that they sometimes barely make news—unless the victims are students or children, as if an adult life isn’t of equal value.
Israel is a strong example of a country that has gun laws but where many citizens are armed. Violent crime rates are among the lowest in the world, with crimes committed primarily by terrorists, not by ordinary citizens who are armed solely to protect themselves from these monsters. I visit the communities of Judea and Samaria, where most of the settlers carry guns to protect themselves, and they are, with some tiny exceptions, among the most peaceful people in the world. They simply desire to protect themselves from terrorists killing their families.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
In Torah, responsibility and rights go together. Every right is qualified by an obligation to use it for the good; guns are no different. Arms are emblematic of freedom. When we left Egyptian slavery, Torah writes that “Israel came up out of Egypt armed.” Our freedom must not be hostage to the whim of a tyrant. The use of weaponry to defend our independence is obligatory. Self-defense is a trump card—if an enemy threatens, Jewish law mandates that we take up arms even on Shabbat. But with the power of arms comes responsibility. Halacha forbids supplying weapons to dangerous or incompetent people.
More fundamentally, Jewish law rules that there is something shameful about a world in which weaponry is still necessary. We Jews abhor the culture of violence; weapons are a stigma. Jewish law rules that a sword cannot be an ornament; we should adorn ourselves with the beauty of the visions of Micah and Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks.” We may use arms, but we are responsible for how we use them. Our main job is to teach responsibility, by replacing a culture of violence with a culture of peace.
Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin
Chabad of Greater Dayton