“Shalom” (peace) is the ideal. The priestly blessing ends with its invocation, as do many of our major prayers like the Kaddish, for example. According to the Sages, the Torah was given in order to bring peace to the world (see Gittin 59b): “Her paths are paths of pleasantness and all her ways are peace” (Proverbs 3). Yet, Judaism is not a pacifistic religion. The Torah recognizes the unfortunate necessity of war and describes both obligatory and discretionary wars. Similarly, Jewish law mandates self defense: “if someone comes to kill you, arise early and kill him first” (Yoma 85b). And the law of “rodef” obligates one who witnesses another being attacked physically or sexually to intervene in order to save and protect the victim, using any and all force that is necessary(Sanhedrin 73a; Choshen Mishpat 425:1).
Regarding gun control: There are a number of factors to consider. Guns can be dangerous and Jewish law prohibits keeping dangerous objects like faulty ladders and vicious dogs in places where people may come to harm (Baba Kamma 15b, 79a; Choshen Mishpat 427, 409:3). Jewish law also prohibits selling weapons to those who are likely to use them for criminal behavior (Avodah Zarah 15b; Yoreh De’ah 151:5-6). And hunting for sport was dismissed as an activity which runs counter to Jewish values and morality (Orach Chaim 316:2; Responsa Noda be-Yehudah, tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 10). The Mishnah, Shabbat 63a, in discussing whether a person was permitted to carry weapons on the Sabbath records a debate: Rabbi Eliezer considered their transport permitted because they are considered to be ornaments for the one who bears them. “But the sages maintain they are merely shameful, for it is said, “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift sword up against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Rabbi J. David Bliech, a professor of Jewish law at Yeshiva University wrote, “Jewish law recognizes that indiscriminate sale of weapons cannot fail to endanger the public. The daily newspaper confirms this deep-seated distrust far more often than is necessary. As the bearers of an ageless moral code, Jews ought to be in the vanguard of those seeking to impress upon our legislators that handguns are indeed ‘stumbling blocks’ which must not fall into the hands of the ‘blind.’ Criminals do commit crimes, and it is precisely because ‘morally blind’ criminals are disposed to crime that Judaism teaches that it is forbidden to provide them with the tools of their trade.”
However, the needs of self defense allowed for the possession and responsible use of firearms. In Israel today, many Jews, including observant ones, especially those living in Judea and Samaria, carry guns for self-protection.
The second chapter of the First Book of Maccabees tells of a time in Jewish history when self-defence, particularly on Shabbat, was a debatable Jewish value. Ultimately, the view that costs many of our people their lives was replaced by the view that self-defence is warranted. Today, there is no question that self-defence is justified in Jewish law. The Talmud (Berkahot 58a and parallels) advises that if one comes to kill you, get up earlier and kill him first. Whether or not gun control impedes the warrant to defend oneself is matter of dispute in modern times when guns are accessible and sometimes used, to put it mildly, for unjustified purposes.
I grew up with young adults who spent their summers in Zionist camps learning how to shoot. Under the influence of Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, some Jews ardently held that good marksmanship was necessary in a world hostile to Jews. This same kind of thinking was endorsed by Rabbi Meir Kahane who once advocated ‘Every Jew a .22!’ To them, gun control was a threat to Jewish survival. In contrast, in 1999 Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Reform movement, linked guns with genocide and equated the U.S. gun lobby with what he termed “the criminal lobby.” Rabbi Yoffie argues that it was in the best interests of all citizens, including Jews, to restrict the availability of firearms.
There is no uniform position on gun control even in the same religious movement. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Montreal writes that gun control could be justified under the laws of preserving public safety. After the Torah (Deut. 22:8) instructs Jews to build parapets on the roof of their homes, the Talmud (Baba Kama 15b) extends the underlying principle to include the removal of any safety hazard. Similarly, the Talmud (Baba Kama 79a) bans uncontrolled dangerous animals from inhabited areas, extended by the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat 409:3) to other matters as well. And the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 15b) limits dangerous weapons being put in the hands of aggressors or would-be criminals. The implication here is that some significant screening is justified. Nevertheless, Rabbi Steinmetz does not conclude that gun control is contrary to Jewish law. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein takes a more philosophical position noting that so long as human beings have an urge to do evil, they will find a way. Controlling guns, therefore, will not produce the desired effect.
In 1993 the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism passed a resolution in favour of gun control, re-affirmed in the 1995 support of the Brady Bill banning assault weapons.
Adopted by the CCAR at the 86th Annual Convention of
the Central Conference of American Rabbis
WHEREAS we are heirs of a prophetic tradition which ever sought to repair the damagedworld, and
WHEREAS in our efforts to restore the world to sanity we affirm the following positionwhich we take knowing full well the complexity of such an issue but knowing alsothat we cannot be silent,
WHEREAS we members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis have become increasinglyaware of the great loss of human life in the United States due to the proliferationof handguns in so many sectors of our society including homes and schools, and
WHEREAS the handgun has been accurately and positively identified as the weapon usedmost frequently in cases of rage and passion where one or more persons are killedor maimed, and
WHEREAS children and young people between the ages of 1 and 19 have easy access toguns of family and friends resulting in a mounting toll of young deaths and seriousinjuries, and
WHEREAS the handgun is appearing with increasing frequency in high schools and moreand more students are killed and injured by these guns each year,
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbiscall upon the Congress of the United States and all state legislatures to speedilyenact such legislation as will effectively ban the sale of handguns to all citizensexcept (1) the military, (2) duly authorized police officers, (3) qualified and competentsecurity personnel who will have possession of such handguns only in direct performanceof their duties, and (4) sports target shooters duly licensed by local authorities, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that such legislation shall make provisions for collectingand redeeming in United States currency all handguns now in possession of citizens,aliens, residents and visitors of the United States, other than those authorizedand heretofore enumerated, namely: (1) the military, (2) police officers, (3) qualified andcompetent security personnel, and (4) sports target shooters duly licensed by localauthorities, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that individual members of the Central Conference of AmericanRabbis will assist and encourage organizations and individuals who are at presentand who may in the future work knowingly and diligently for such state and federallegislation, namely to ban the sale of handguns to the general public and to collect andredeem those handguns presently in the possession of persons other than (1) the military,(2) police officers, (3) qualified security personnel, and (4) sports target shooters duly licensed by local authorities, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this Resolution be mailed to the President andVice-President of the United States, that copies be made available in quantity andthat each member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis be urged to send acopy of this Resolution to each member of the legislatures of the individual states wherethe member of the Conference resides, and that the President of the Union of AmericanHebrew Congregations be asked to send a copy of this Resolution to the members ofthe Joint Commission on Social Action of the UAHC-CCAR seeking endorsement and implementationof this or a similar resolution at the forthcoming Biennial Convention of the UAHC.
Adopted by the CCAR at the 100th Annual Convention of
the Central Conference of American Rabbis
Cincinnati, Ohio June, 1989
WHEREAS the proliferation of firearms and automatic weapons continues unabated; and
WHEREAS the loss of life and personal injury from the use of such weapons grows astronomically,and
WHEREAS the Central Conference of American Rabbis has been on record in previous yearsin support of gun control.
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the CCAR urge local, state, and national officials torestrict the sale of all handguns and to ban the sale of automatic weapons to thegeneral public.
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NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.