Opinion | Opinion

Jews and guns

(Jewish Ideas Daily) — Two mass shootings last 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, calling for “common-sense gun control laws.”  A blog post clarifies: “The most effective way to prevent gun deaths is to reduce the number of guns.”  An earlier editorial by a RAC associate director feared 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 Conservative Rabbinical Assembly’s president condemned the shootings, but also noted “the fragility of the fundamental social contract that binds us to each other in a civil society.”  Assault on that contract, he observed, “erodes our sense of security,” and “threatens to make us that much less trusting, and less compassionate.”  Unhelpfully abstract, this begs the question of whether it is the guns or 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 sermonized on guns and violence, taking various positions, Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America issued no public statement on the recent events.

Jewish exegesis related to guns is necessarily indirect.  Biblical and talmudic texts generally require people to secure possessions, 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 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.  For men, if follows, 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 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, uniquely, cede this power unilaterally 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, while Orthodox silence on the issue tacitly accepts the 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 the suffering it produces as noble.  Another 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.  For instance, educated upper middle-class suburbanites, largely untouched by gun violence, are opposed to guns.  That class also looks to expiate a sense of privilege by restricting the rights of others.

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 government’s protection but as a way of establishing an entitlement to such protection.  Although government obliges, criminals and terrorists have not agreed to the bargain, hence the occasional human sacrifice.

But the American social contract, as its founding documents attest, uniquely specifies that government does not enjoy a monopoly on violence.  Moreover, the power of governments to threaten liberties is fact, not 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 bearing assault rifles?  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 is necessarily foolish.  And faith in powerlessness is still worse, demeaning and potentially suicidal.

Alex Joffe is a contributing writer at Jewish Ideas Daily. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.