Are They His Adornments? On Guns and Masculinity

November 3, 2009
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Aryeh Cohen

When I went to Israel in the mid-1970s to study in yeshivah for a year (which became two years, then five years, then aliyah and a life-long commitment, then twelve years), there was a moment ritualized in the surety of its repetition with every new cadre of American students.

As I was studying at a hesder yeshivah, all of my Israeli contemporaries were either serving or on the brink of serving in the Israeli army. As a result of this, our Israeli colleagues in the bet midrash and with whom we shared dorm rooms and lunch tables were — when on security detail — armed. This was quite a change from the urban and suburban lives that my American colleagues and I had led prior to our time at yeshivah. The reaction to this situation is fascinating in hindsight. The overwhelming response was awe. Here’s the ritualized moment: At some time during the year, almost every one of the Americans would borrow one of the Israeli students’ weapons (usually an M16 submachine gun), unloaded, and be photographed holding the gun. There were ancillary moments to this central ritual such as acquiring IDF shirts or hats or T-shirts. However, all were secondary to the moment of posing with the weapon.

I feel the need to stress that these were seventeen-, eighteen-, or nineteen-year-olds who spent most of their waking hours studying Talmud. These were young men whose life experiences and cultural knowledge up until that moment had taught them to avoid people with weapons. Yet, here they were, venerating death-dealing weaponry. The weapons, of course, were not seen as real, as in “I might be in combat where I would have to fire a weapon at another person.” They were props and the young men were Rambo or Ari ben Canaan for that moment.

Holding the weapon was also a transitory cure for what might be called the diasporic malady — living historical powerlessness and oppression. These young men were exulting in the power of an army that was no more theirs than their powerlessness in North America; however, this momentary dream of masculinity served to assuage the learned powerlessness of the American Jewish community.

The contestation about the status of weaponry is inscribed in some of the earliest texts of Rabbinic Judaism — texts that were part of the core curriculum of these students. Mishnah Shabbat 6:4 records some regulations for what one may transport from a private domain to a public domain on Shabbat.

A man may not go out with a sword or a bow or a shield or a club or a spear; and if he went out [with the like of these] he is liable to a sin-offering. R. Eliezer says: They are his adornments. But the Sages say: They are only a disgrace to him, for it is said (Isaiah 2:4): And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Whether or not a man may carry his weapon from a private to a public domain depends on whether weapons are considered to be adornments like jewelry (tachshitin). If so, then it is parallel to what a woman is permitted to wear while going from a private to a public domain in this chapter of Mishnah. R. Eliezer claims that weapons adorn a man. They are
intricately bound up with his masculinity and are a glory to it. As proof of his position, he draws support from a verse in Psalms (45:4): “Gird your sword upon your thigh, O hero, in your splendor and glory.” Rav Kahane, a Babylonian sage who made aliyah to the land of Israel, avers: “This verse refers to Torah study.”

The American Jewish community is unsettled about what guns, army, power, and violence mean. While it would probably be seen as scandalous if the son of a Modern Orthodox family abandoned the professional track for a stint in the marines, it would be seen as laudable if that same son joined the IDF paratroopers. Gun control is desirable in Los Angeles but guns are desired by Americans living in Jerusalem.

This should force us to face the question: Do we think that weapons adorn our communal masculinity?

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Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, lives in Los Angeles with his partner Andrea and their children Shachar and Oryah. He teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, davens at the Shtibl Minyan, and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender among other topics. He is currently writing a book, Justice in the City: Thinking the Just City out of the Sources of Rabbinic Literature.

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