Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Jewish View on Weapons

As we debate gun policy in the wake of Newtown, we should heed the wisdom of the Jewish sages

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has sparked passionate debate about whether or not we need stricter gun-control laws in this country—and the Jewish community is no exception. 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.
Who’s telling the truth? What does Judaism actually have to say about guns? The question can’t be answered with the perfect passage from the Torah or the Talmud, in part because the rabbis could never have fathomed the destructive nature of modern guns, like the ones that took the lives of 27 people in Newtown last Friday. 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.

Swords and Other Weapons

There is little doubt that our rabbinic forebears lived in a violent world: The Talmud is full of stories and rules regarding ropes, chains, stocks, swords, and shields. Yet their views on these implements were not monolithic. On the one hand, the 13th-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides says that when Lemach, Adam’s great-great grandson (mentioned in the fourth chapter of Genesis) taught his son to smelt metal, his wives protested. They worried that through this simple act, Lemach was bringing death into the world since now humans would be able to make swords. However, Lemach, according to Nachmanides’ interpretation, replied to the wives that murder existed well before weapons. After all, his great-grandfather Cain killed his brother Abel with his bare hands. The story is perhaps the oldest variation on the phrase made famous on so many bumper stickers: Swords don’t kill people. People kill people.
But the story of Lemach is not even close to the Jewish tradition’s last word on the matter. The Mishnah, in Tractate Shabbat, records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of rabbis called the sages about whether one may carry weapons on Shabbat. According to Eliezer, weapons like swords, bows, or cudgels were considered “adornments” like jewelry or hair ribbons. Since these items are essentially like one’s clothing we don’t have to worry about them violating the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, he argues.

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