As America continues to mourn the victims of the horrific slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the issue of gun control has predictably and rightfully been placed back at the center of public discourse. Within the Jewish community, the debate has centered on two distinct but related issues. The first concerns the State of Israel, namely, whether its relatively low rate of firearm deaths, despite the ubiquity of guns and the military in Israeli society, results from better gun laws or from a healthier cultural attitude toward weapons.
The second focus of the debate concerns the attempt to articulate a (or “the”) Jewish position on gun control. In addition to a host of major nondenominational organizations that issued statements advocating stricter controls in the wake of the Newtown shooting, national bodies associated with Reform and Conservative Judaism reiterated their longstanding gun control advocacy in specifically Jewish religious terms. The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) website also posted a set of traditional Jewish texts in the original and in English translation that frame Jewish attitudes toward weaponry and guide readers by asking key questions for each text.
On the other hand, no major Orthodox umbrella body issued a statement about gun control in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, or of the mass shootings in Aurora and Oak Creek either, for that matter. Chabad’s website has an article, posted in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, that takes an adversarial approach to the gun control issue, pitting traditional Jewish sources against one another and refraining from drawing conclusions on the debate. To be sure, individual rabbis from every denomination have expressed their opinions unambiguously through various media. Nevertheless, does the lack of a unified statement mean that Chabad and mainstream Orthodoxy remain ambivalent, agnostic, or internally divided on this issue? Are they perhaps concealing their true opinions?
Moreover, although the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism expressed the need for stricter gun control and has mobilized its youth wing, USY, to participate in a Dec. 26 Boston rally against gun violence, USY’s summer trip to Israel includes IDF-style training, including learning how to shoot an M-16, an automatic assault rifle. Does this indicate that USCJ’s public statements are somewhat hypocritical?
A closer look at one of the texts cited in many of these individual and organizational opinions illustrates just how fundamentally ambivalent about weapons Jewish tradition really is. The Mishna (Shabbat 6:4) states:
“A man must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, mace or spear; if he does so he is liable. Rabbi Eliezer says: they are ornaments to him. But the Sages say: they are nothing but shameful, as it is stated (Isaiah 2:4): ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor shall they train for war anymore.’”
This Mishna discusses an application of the rule that one may not carry objects on the Sabbath in a public area. Clothing and adornments are excepted from this rule. According to Rabbi Eliezer, weapons are an adornment for a man, much as an item of jewelry. The Sages, however, disagree: in the messianic era there will be no more weapons, and thus even today they are abhorrent.
At first glance, Rabbi Eliezer would certainly seem to be correct. Weapons have long been used as symbols of rank and status. Why should the law not recognize the reality that in the Mishna’s time, and today, weapons have aesthetic value in addition to functional value? The Sages, though, dispute this law by protesting against any culture that glorifies weaponry. They anticipated the messianic era envisioned by the Jewish prophets, in which war would be abolished and its implements used for entirely peaceful ends.
Yet even the Sages do not deny the necessity of weapons in the pre-messianic era. As abhorrent as weapons are, the Sages do not forbid handling them on Shabbat in a private domain, and certainly not during the week. Implements of war, according to the Sages and the dominant voice of Jewish tradition, are despicable. They may be necessary, but only when justified on purely functional grounds, not aesthetic ones.
This ethos remains strong in Israeli law and culture. Israeli gun licenses are based on justification, and its rate of rejection of gun permit applications is the highest in the world, according to Janet Rosenbaum, a professor of epidemiology at SUNY Downstate’s School of Public Health.
Moreover, the IDF’s ethical doctrine includes a value called Tohar Ha-neshek, or Purity of Arms. It states:
“IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity, and property.”
This doctrine is the direct descendant of the Sages’ deep ambivalence as reflected in the Mishna. Perhaps, then, advocating stricter gun control is entirely consistent with having teenagers train to handle weapons alongside the IDF.
Elli Fischer is a writer and translator in Israel.