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Mon Aug 20, 2012, 07:46 PM

Jews and Guns

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 Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has decried the recent shootings and called for “common-sense gun control laws.” A blog on the Center’s website clarifies what the RAC thinks this means. “The most effective way to prevent gun deaths,” it says, “is to reduce the number of guns.” An earlier editorial by a RAC associate director went further. It decried the prospect of an armed and balkanized American society—and derided the argument that “only when Jews have guns have they been able to preserve Jewish honor and dignity.” The RAC’s answer to threats that Jews might face is tikkun olam.

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?


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