This is a guest post by Alex Joffe. This article was first published on August 17, 2012 by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
Two mass shootings in the past month—in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin—have focused American attention once again on the issue of guns. Are guns a Jewish issue? Jewish organizations have expressed their opinions by their statements and their silence.
The president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly made a more interesting comment on the shootings. He condemned them, but also noted “the fragility of the fundamental social contract that binds us to each other in a civil society. Each and every assault on that unwritten contract,” he observed, “erodes our sense of security, and in so doing, threatens to make us that much less trusting, and less compassionate.” This is undoubtedly true—and unhelpfully abstract. It begs the question of whether it is the guns or the shooters that pose the real problem.
The Orthodox Union condemned the shootings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin as an assault on religious freedom—but did not mention guns. While Orthodox rabbis, like rabbis of other denominations, have undoubtedly sermonized on guns and violence, taking various positions, Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America issued no public statement about the recent events.
Jewish exegesis related to guns is necessarily indirect. Biblical and talmudic texts generally require people to secure possessions of theirs, such as dangerous dogs, that pose safety hazards. There are prohibitions on selling weapons to idol worshippers and criminals, lest the weapons be turned against Jews. At the same time, there are complicating biblical and talmudic pronouncements about moral freedom and pikuah nefesh, saving a life. In one talmudic commentary on Deuteronomy, the prohibition on a woman’s wearing men’s clothing includes a ban on her wearing weapons, the quintessential male accoutrement. It follows that for men, wearing weapons is natural.
But none of these sources figures in American Jews’ discussions of guns; instead, there is near blanket opposition. Why?
At the center of the gun issue is power: To whom does the positive and negative power of weapons rightfully belong? Max Weber famously defined the state as an entity with a monopoly on violence; and the American Jewish attitude towards guns, following Weber, cedes all responsibility for the protection of individuals—of Jews—to government. American Jews, as opposed to Jews through most of history, unilaterally cede this power even though it is available to them.
The issue is not simply Left versus Right. The Reform movement explicitly wishes to restrict or prohibit individual gun ownership. In contrast, Orthodox silence on the issue tacitly accepts both the legal status quo, which permits private guns, and social norms, under which Jews do not own guns. The denominational positions effectively converge. Guns are not for Jews.
One pathological consequence of Jewish powerlessness has been the tendency to embrace weakness, rationalizing it and the suffering it produces as elevated and noble. Another pathology is guilt regarding whatever power one does possess. For American Jews, who are not shy about wielding their social and economic power, the choice to remain unarmed is perverse—but logical.
Jews also follow the prejudices of their social class. Educated upper middle-class suburbanites, largely untouched by gun violence, are notably opposed to guns. Their opposition reflects intellectuals’ assumptions about the sources of and solutions to violence, and blame is assigned to the technology. True, the culture of the shooters themselves is identified as the problem in certain cases—say, neo-Nazis. But in other cases, such as inner cities, culture is quietly ignored: Highlighting it might be thought racist. Expiating a sense of privilege by restricting the rights of others is another hallmark of the educated upper middle class. In this sense, too, Jews emulate their fellows and embrace weakness.
There is also a passive-aggressive element in the American Jewish attitude: It cedes a monopoly on violence to government not just in exchange for the government’s protection but as a way of establishing an entitlement to—of demanding—such protection. Government, correspondingly, offers sympathy to victims while accepting empowerment as their protector. Unfortunately, criminals and terrorists have not agreed to the bargain. Thus, the Jewish attitude, a form of pacifism, entails the occasional human sacrifice.
But the American social contract uniquely specifies that government does not retain a monopoly on violence. The country was founded precisely in rebellion against such an idea, a rebellion that is burned into the nation’s founding documents. Moreover, the power of governments to threaten liberties is fact, not paranoid fantasy; Jews have been victims of state violence as much or more than non-state violence. The question of whether to place total trust in the state for protection does not have a self-evident answer.
Then there is the problem of guns and Zion. How many American Jews are taken aback at seeing young Israeli men and women with assault rifles slung on their shoulders? How much alienation from Israel comes from the American Jewish desire that violence be impersonal and distant, rather than, as in Israel, intensely personal?
Guns are an imperfect last defense against adversaries—governments, terrorists, home invaders. In rejecting guns, Jews elect to put their full faith in government—also imperfect, as well as haphazard, biased, even vindictive. Placing faith in government rather than in legal rights places faith not in laws but in human discretion. Such a choice in the haphazard and political is necessarily foolish. And faith in powerlessness is still worse, demeaning and potentially suicidal.
As a suburban Jew that grew up with guns (my dad was a physician in Detroit in the early 80’s and did house calls while armed) I learned early on to respect guns. I learned gun safety before I was 10 and learned how to disarm a loaded gun in the event I ever saw a friend playing with a weapon. Learning to use a gun at an early age taught me to respect what is a very powerful thing. More importantly, it took away the fascination and mystique that is a problem with many youth in our society that see gun violence repeated in movies, video games, and reality.
I have made it a point to take multiple friends to the gun range to teach them to use a firearm. That includes making them review the manual before we go to the range and maintain a zero tolerance policy when it comes to safety. It is an eye opening experience for many.
Given the penetration of weapons in our society 88 per 100K people compared to 7.8 per 100k in Israel, it is my belief that children learn gun safety. While I recognize my situation may be unique, the idea that America will rid itself of guns is both politically and realistically improbable. Look at the success our country has eliminating drugs, now try further restricting, or eliminating something that people correctly/incorrectly believe is a fundamental constitutional right. Responsible gun ownership, better government coordination among agencies, psychological exams, and closing the gun show loophole are the correct road but politically difficult (both R and D legislators are beholden to the NRA).
I was amazed when I went to buy my one and only firearm at how easy it was (I am one of the few Jews that hunts). A state issued license and a quick call to the FBI was all that was required. However, will making it harder really stop criminals? Not likely. Education, government coordination, and closing loopholes are the most likely and best steps.
As a Jew and former member of the National Rifle Association of America’s Board of Directors (1992 – 1998), as well as a member of the Minnesota State Service Rifle Team to the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, and an individual who was concerned enough about Civil Liberties to be heavily involved in the drafting of the Minnesota Citizens Personal Protection Act of 2003, I have always been offput by the apparent schizophrenia of the so-called “Jewish” position on gun rights, the Second Amendment, and, yes, “political correctness.”
Alex Joffe hits the nail on the head, but he doesn’t do so hard enough, in my opinion. Helplessness, dependence on others for one’s personal safety and security, and the efforts to encourage or to enforce others to join you in this state of affairs (with social or religious sanctions), is not a sign of moral superiority or religious doctrine or purity. Rather it is a dysfunctional and self-defeating violation of the the Commandment “Thou shall not kill,” by allowing the other side of the coin to become true, “Thou shall not allow yourself to be killed.”
I can certainly understand the desire of many, even most, not to get their hands dirty with the blood of others, which is the reason that Jewish Law has always taught restraint, as does American jurisprudence, on the taking of life or the spilling of blood. Jewish Law, however makes allowances for the necessity of doing so, not only in its laws of self-defense, but also in its laws of Kashrut, the taking of life, any life, for survival. Most Jews do not hunt (I do, but we can discuss that later) and most people outsource the provision of meat for them to eat to the slaughterhouse and to the butcher.
Outsourcing one’s personal protection to the government, IF it can and will respond, and IF it is not the immediate problem, itself, is not only overly-trusting and overly dependent, it is also monumentally dysfunctional and stupid. Remember, people, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away. This has been proven time and time, again, most recently in Colorado at the movie theater and in Wisconsin at the Sikh Temple. Placing yourself in the situation where you have chosen to prefer to allow your blood to be on someone else’s hands in preference to having their blood on yours simply does NOT have “survival value.” Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword, at a distance, and with time possibly to persuade; but there is nothing like having a sword of your own when it gets up close and personal, real and immediate.
Have we learned NOTHING from the Holocaust, that you can’t reason with insanity, that you can’t negotiate with a terrorist who has a gun to your head, that being herded, defenseless into gas chambers or lined up and shot simply doesn’t work, function for survival? The Israelis know this; we should, too. They don’t line up to be murdered without a fight; neither should we. They are prepared, just in case it becomes necessary; so should we be. If you carry life insurance against the inevitable (or even Term Insurance for a limited period of time), then it only makes sense to carry real life insurance, to be prepared, “just in case,” in my opinion.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “Those who hammer their swords into plowshares will plow for those who do not.” I was taught that Jews abhorred slavery (Bet Avadim), for others, and especially for themselves. Apparently not!? That violates the First Commandment: “Anochi Adonai . . . mi eretz Mitzraim . . . biyad chazakah . . ..”
And, if we truly believe in the rights of others to choose for themselves in almost all things personal, certainly in all things private, then why does the so-called Jewish position not respect the personal choice of the individual concerning personal protection under the Civil [and political] Liberty of the Second Amendment? By saying nothing, the Orthodox do that; the rest apparently do not, actively attempting to deny the validity of that personal choice. Based on what principle or doctrine other than political correctness, and in violation of at least two Commandments?
Now, it may be true that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword. But it is even more true, and more certain, that he who doesn’t live by the sword, or chooses not to have one, will die by the sword of another who does.
Depending on the good faith and moral values of another who demonstrates that they have none toward you and lack moral values which include your rights and safety is truly stupid, even if it happens only once in a while and usually toward others. We human beings, as Jews, are not sheep who huddle in a herd, willing to sacrifice those on the outside to the wolves; or are we?
Are we intent on repeating the mistakes which Martin Niemoller identified concerning such politically incorrect outsiders?:
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Are we as Jews, this time around, volunteering to go first? Each Jew, as an individual, can make that choice, personally, I guess; and I’ll have to respect that as a personal choice. But there is simply no way that I’m going to submit, voluntarily, by law, or through “persuasion,” to having other people make that choice for ME, ever. Never, Again!
I’m an American Jew who demands the respect of my fellow Jews, and others, for my right to be prepared to survive. Show me disrespect at your own peril, in context, “associative” peril (First Amendment) concerning ideas, or very real, personal peril if you attack me physically. I suggest that you really do want me, and others like me, around in the group, “just in case,” as a collateral beneficiary of my willingness to shed blood in order to avoid having mine shed by those others who would also shed yours.
Think about it really hard, really carefully, realistically and functionally. You don’t have to get your hands dirty in order to do so.