Jewish Ethics: Hillel and Shammai Weigh in on Gun Rights
“A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic…but also because doubt is good for the human soul…”—Rabbi Emanuel Rackman
Most Talmudically literate Jews know of the famous rivalry between those two eminent rabbis of the early 1st century CE, Hillel and Shammai. In matters ranging from ritual practice to foreign policy, the opposing opinions voiced by their respective schools have been debated for two millennia. It is intriguing to imagine a modern-day debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai on one of the most bitterly-contested issues facing our country today: that of “gun control”. Would these two sages be able to shed light on an issue that generates such intense heat, these days? It would be a challenge, even for such luminaries.
Indeed, the term “gun control” itself is hotly contested, with some preferring the more innocuous term, “firearms regulation.” And while the image of Jews brandishing semi-automatic rifles may seem incongruous, or even repugnant, to many in the Jewish community, some American Jews see any restrictions on gun sales or possession as an existential threat to Jews and non-Jews alike.
As Rabbi Mark Katz recently observed, “For every organization like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which aggressively advocates for strict gun control, there are others like Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, who call gun control ‘code words for disarming innocent people.’ Both camps, of course, claim that Judaism is on their side.”
Indeed, the debate is often roiled by references to Hitler’s Germany, and claims that the extermination of the Jews would have been averted, or at least attenuated, if European Jews had been well-armed. It is easy to understand the animosity that often arises between these two rival “schools”–and hard to envision a Solomonic resolution of the controversy.
As a psychiatric physician and bioethicist, I have my own views on the matter of firearms regulation, but it is not my intention here to attack or defend any one position. Rather, I want to examine some of the ethical issues raised by each side of the debate, through the lens of Talmudic and rabbinic teachings. As we’ll see, the rebbeim of the Talmud do not provide unequivocal answers to many questions in the debate over gun control, nor do our modern-day rabbis speak with one voice on this matter—no surprise there! And yet, I would suggest that rabbinic and halakhic (Jewish legal) principles can shed much-needed light on this debate, and that as Jews, we can reach some tentative conclusions. But before delving too deeply into the ancient texts, I’d like to frame both sides of the argument in very broad terms, invoking the “voices” of our contemporary opposing camps.
Gun Possession is a Logical Extension of Jewish Ethics
Jewish ethics hallow the principle of self-defense as both a right and an obligation. Our ethics also stress our moral duty to defend others against violent attacks. The Talmud (Berkahot 58a and parallels) is clear: if someone comes to kill you, get up earlier and kill him first. Moreover, we are told in Leviticus, “Do not stand by the bloodshed of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16), which means we have an obligation to stop someone from harming or killing a fellow human being. Unfortunately, in modern times, guns are sometimes the only way to carry out these obligations to defend oneself and others. As Dennis Prager puts it, “If I am armed, I can better protect myself, my loved ones and my neighbors.” Furthermore, one is not culpable for killing a pursuer (rodef) who has intent to kill (Exodus 22:1). Some halakhic authorities, including Maimonides, even argue that the homeowner is obligated to kill the pursuer (Rambam Hilkhot Rotzaiach V’Shmirat Ha’Nefesh, 10:11).
To be sure, guns may be misused to injure or kill innocent people, but evil doers have killed and injured since time immemorial and did not need guns—after all, Cain killed Abel with his bare hands! In Biblical times, the slogan might well have been, “Swords don’t kill people. People kill people.” The same, of course, is true of guns. Indeed, in Israel today, many Jews, including observant Jews living in Judea and Samaria, carry guns for self-protection–yet gun homicide and mass shootings are rare in Israel. Moreover, attempts to “regulate” firearms are merely ploys, aimed ultimately at confiscation or mandatory “buy backs” of all firearms in this country. And, as we know from long and painful history, gun confiscation is closely linked with genocide. Indeed, had the Jews been sufficiently armed in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust might well have taken a much smaller toll. In short, Jews should be the first ones to stand up for the right to bear arms, in order to preserve our own lives and the lives of those we love.
Poorly-regulated Gun Possession is Dangerous and Inconsistent with Jewish Values
Our sages have generally taken a dim view of weapons of any kind, guided by the principle in Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Indeed, carrying weapons on the Sabbath was viewed as a “disgrace” by most of the rabbis of the Talmud. Of course, our sages have always recognized the right to defend oneself and one’s family or community against violent attack, such as an armed intruder—a rodef— in one’s home. However, Jewish ethics has always emphasized the preeminent importance of safety, particularly in the home. Thus, the Talmud tells us that “…it is forbidden to have anything likely to cause damage about one’s domicile” (Bava Kama 46a).
Now, modern research tells us that guns in the home are strongly correlated with increased risk of suicide and accidental death or injury, and rarely are used successfully against an intruder. Arguably, the Jewish homeowner does more harm than good by keeping guns in the home. Firearms policies that may be appropriate in Israeli society do not necessarily work well in the U.S., where very different social, cultural and economic factors are at work. Similarly, comparisons between pre-Nazi Germany and present-day America are misplaced; indeed, it was the Nazi party’s ability to amass firearms that allowed it to overcome the central government’s authority and seize power. Furthermore, hypothetical scenarios of totalitarian takeovers cannot justify ignoring the here-and-now carnage in our streets, owing to gun-related violence. Indeed, the American obsession with guns has become a form of idolatry—and the Jewish response to idolatry should be one of moral outrage.
Jewish law also sets limits on sales of weapons to those who might use them for illicit or violent purposes. In biblical times, the sale of weapons was heavily regulated; for example, selling weapons to one’s enemies was strictly forbidden, lest they use the weapons against you (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 15b). Extrapolating from such laws to modern times, there is precedent in halakha for careful “background checks” in all gun sales. The Jewish tradition emphasizes the language of responsibility, more than the language of rights. Just as the Torah (Deut. 22:8) instructs Jews to build parapets on their roofs, so must our society limits on potentially lethal weapons.
Swords, Dogs, Snakes and Stumbling blocks
Rabbi Marc Katz, of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Booklyn, recently commented on the raging debate over gun control in this country. He wrote that, “To understand what our sages would have thought about our modern problems of unlimited ammunition and semiautomatic weapons, we have to examine their perspective on the dangers of their time—such as swords, dogs, stumbling blocks, and snakes. Their wisdom remains eerily relevant.”
Rabbi Katz points to Tractate Shabbat in the Mishnah, which records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of rabbis, regarding whether one may carry weapons on Shabbat. Rabbi Eliezer holds that weapons like swords, bows, or cudgels are considered “adornments” like jewelry or hair ribbons and do not violate the prohibition against carrying weapons on Shabbat. But his colleagues disagree. They call these weapons a “disgrace” and point to the verse in Isaiah exhorting humanity to “…beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Katz suggests that later authorities tend to side with Rabbi Eliezer’s colleagues, in their loathing of weapons.
Of course, as Katz points out, there are contrary arguments (aside from the fact that not every day is Shabbat). We have, for example, the story of Lamech (or Lemech), Adam’s great-great grandson, mentioned in Genesis 4:19-25. Lamech teaches one of his sons (Tubal-Cain) to smelt metal. Now, Katz points out that the great 13th century sage, Nachmanides, has Lamech’s wives expressing concern that– by teaching his son the art of smelting– Lamech would be punished by God for bringing swords into existence. But according to Nachmanides, Lamech answers his wives by observing that the sword is not the cause of murder; rather, it is the person who uses the sword. Katz observes that this might be considered a Biblical version of the modern claim by gun rights advocates that, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Then there is the argument centering on the “dangerous dog”—sometimes used as a symbolic precursor of our “dangerous weapon” argument. On the one and, the Talmud prohibits a person from owning a “mean” or “dangerous” dog (Bava Kamma 15b, 79a), and requires that anyone who owns such an animal must keep it chained at all times. Some modern-day advocates of gun control see this as halakhic justification for gun control—or, at the very least, for requiring gun owners to keep their weapons safely locked away, so that children or others can’t get hold of them. On the other hand, the rebbeim of the Talmud allowed for some exceptions; for example, in certain dangerous “border towns”, where there was a threat of marauders, owners of dangerous dogs were permitted to unchain their dogs at night, for protection. By analogy and extension to modern times, some would argue that when a gun is actively being used for security—say, by a bank guard—it need not be locked away. (This, of course, is not the same as authorizing the average citizen to carry a gun on his person, as permitted by so-called “concealed carry” laws in some states).
A corollary of the “dangerous dog” argument involves a category in Jewish law called mu’ad—roughly translated as “forewarned.” In the Mishnah (Bava Kamma 16a), the sages list a number of animals that are simply too dangerous to keep in any domestic setting, such as the wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the panther and the snake. These animals fall into the category of mu’ad, and if one of them kills or injures someone, their owner is held liable. Yet once again, we find Rabbi Eliezer in partial disagreement with the other sages, since he believes all these animals are “trainable”—except for the snake. Now, modern-day advocates of gun control find support in the concept of “mu’ad”, arguing, in effect, that guns are very much like snakes—simply too dangerous to control. These advocates point to high rates of accidental or intentional gun deaths in the U.S., even in cases where guns have been locked and stored. Indeed, a recent report from Washington State noted that a 10-year old boy stole a gun from his older brother, by finding a hidden key to the gun case in his brother’s room. The boy had planned to use the gun to kill a classmate, but fortunately, the plot was discovered in time. On the other hand, gun rights advocates may argue that cases such as these do not prove that guns are intrinsically dangerous, like poisonous snakes—only that parents need to exercise greater care in monitoring their children, or that we need to tighten safety regulations for gun storage.
Finally, the concept of the “stumbling block” is of great importance in Jewish ethics. Leviticus 19:14 commands us to avoid putting “a stumbling block in front of the blind.” Our sages have interpreted this to include any kind of impediment—physical or otherwise—that would pose an unnecessary danger to someone unable to anticipate it; for example, intentionally failing to tell a friend that the land he is building on contains an environmental toxin in the soil. Some advocates of gun control have argued that unsecured or readily accessible guns constitute just such a “stumbling block”, in that these weapons may fall into the hands of children or the mentally unstable. In contrast, ardent opponents of gun control argue that disarming—or even “under-arming”– the general public would itself be tantamount to placing a “stumbling block” before a credulous or naive populace. Thus, Rabbi Dovid Bendory, the Rabbinic Director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO), has commented, “I remember the anti-Jewish riots in Crown Heights, just twenty years ago. Could such a rampant outburst happen again? Can anyone deny the possibility?…Far too many Jews have been on the wrong side of the issue of self-defense, helping to con our nation into “gun control” rather than fighting against it.”
While Jewish ethics cannot lead us to specific conclusions regarding gun control, it can point us toward some useful guidelines. First, there is nothing in Jewish tradition that would justify confiscation or total prohibition of firearms; however, no serious student of firearms regulation in the U.S. has argued for such a drastic and radical move. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), clearly upheld the individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes. Thus, gun confiscation is moot as a policy; the issue, rather, is one of reasonable firearms regulation—which was also upheld by the Supreme Court, in the Heller case.
Perhaps this comment from Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, represents a reasonable middle ground: “Although halacha is extremely concerned about safety, it does not prohibit the ownership of guns. However, recognizing that a gun is a dangerous object, halacha (like many current gun control laws) requires that owners and vendors of guns take all possible precautions to prevent their guns from causing any harm.”
As American Jews, we will undoubtedly continue to debate the rights of gun owners and the ethics of gun control. Yet I believe the debate must be framed not merely in terms of our legal rights, but in accordance with the principle of lifnim meshurat hadin—going “beyond the letter of the law.” This means not simply upholding our rights under the Second Amendment, but also weighing our moral responsibilities as parents, neighbors, and citizens. As Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser put it, lifnim meshurat hadin represents “…a free zone in which individuals [express] their generosity and love for their fellow men, without compulsion from outside sources…” Bokser adds that the practice of going beyond the letter of the law “…gives [the] social order stability and enables it to survive.”
In my view, a genuinely Jewish response to the gun control debate should also consider two key ethical principles: pikuach nefesh and kavod habriyot. Pikuach nefesh is usually translated as “the obligation to save a life in jeopardy.” The Talmud tells us that even the laws of the Sabbath may be broken in order to save a life. With respect to gun control, the question that American Jews must ponder is, “To what degree does the possession and sales of firearms in the U.S. foster the saving of lives in jeopardy—and to what degree do readily-accessible firearms place lives in jeopardy?”
Similarly, the principle of kavod habriyot—respect for persons, and for human dignity—may be applied to the gun control debate in two ways. On the one hand, one could argue that only by maintaining an adequately armed populace can we preserve “respect for persons” in the ultimate sense: that of protecting human life against would-be attackers. On the other hand—considering the extraordinarily high level of gun-related homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths in the U.S.—one could argue that kavod habriyot requires tighter restrictions on sales and possession of guns and ammunition. (The issue of how “effective” such restrictions would prove—a matter of considerable controversy—lies outside the scope of this inquiry).
As Americans, we are steeped in the tradition of personal rights and “liberties”–and this is certainly a noble and worthy ideal. But Jewish ethics generally emphasizes moral obligations more than individual “rights” and places substantive limits on personal liberty. I believe this is what the great Jewish ethicist, Moritz Lazarus, had in mind when he observed that, “…every extension of liberty raises the demands made upon man, and increases the measure of his responsibility…”
Ronald Pies, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry, and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY; and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. He is the author of several books on Judaism and comparative religious ethics, and, most recently, of The Three-Petalled Rose, a study of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism. Dr. Pies wishes to thank Rabbi Evan Moffic for his helpful comments on this essay.