Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

Rabbi Amitai Adler
July 8, 2013
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In theory, there ought to be nothing preventing American Jews from owning guns. The halachah has never been shy about self-defense, and the principle of dina d’malchta dina hee (“The law of the land is law” i.e., binding upon you) would seem to lead us to the notion that, given the Second Amendment, and the realities of the occasional need for self-defense, there is nothing preventing an American Jew from owning as many guns of any sort as s/he may wish.

And while this may be technically true, I wish to offer the notion that gun control is perhaps the ideal venue in American Jewish life for the keystone principle of acting lifnim mishurat hadin, which literally means “between the lines of the law,” but is perhaps rendered more idiomatically as “acting over and above the minimums of the law” in order to serve a greater need or principle.

From a Jewish point of view, laws are not there to describe the ideal or maximal parameters of behavior to which a person ought to aspire. They are there to describe the minimum parameters of behavior to which a person is obligated to adhere, lest they be, at best, a schmuck, or at worst, evil. The law is a starting point for ethical existence, not an endpoint.

In other words, just because something may be technically permissible does not make it either right or a good idea. And, as a goy kadosh (holy nation), we have a responsibility not to take shelter in the minimums of the law’s leniency, especially when life and death may be in the balance.

People in the United States claim to purchase and own guns for basically one or more of three reasons: hunting, sport shooting and hobby collecting of firearms or militaria, and self-defense/home defense.

There is nothing that I know of in halachah that says that one cannot have a potentially dangerous hobby, so long as one is careful that no one gets hurt. In theory, Jews should be permitted to collect guns and go sport shooting. However, a hobby is a very minor privilege, and in the eyes of Jewish tradition, has no weight of standing when considering how many people are killed or injured every year in this country because of guns being legal and highly under-regulated.

Since we are not permitted to eat the flesh of an animal killed by gunshot– even if the animal is kosher, it still must be shechted (ritual slaughter) for the meat to be kosher for consumption– it is hard to make a case for Jews being permitted to hunt. Given the stringency of the halachot regarding tzar ba’alei chayim (causing needless suffering to living creatures), I would think that if a case could be made for Jews to hunt at all (let’s say by shooting the animal with a tranquilizer dart and shechting the animal upon its awakening), it would have to be for immediate need. If one could not get meat any other way, and absolutely needed the meat to supplement an otherwise insufficient diet, it is only reasonable to suppose that it would be permissible for Jews to hunt. But short of that, when it is perfectly simple for Jews to get food–including kosher meat– easily and from many other sources (one can even order it online!), there is no reason to hunt, save “sport.” And our tradition does not look kindly on blood sports. I cannot think of any persuasive halachic argument that tzar ba’alei chayim should be overlooked for the sake of “sport.”

Halachah gives us a right to self-defense, but that is not an unlimited right: we are not permitted to purchase our own lives at the cost of many others. If it were a universal and unassailable fact that every gun purchased for self-defense could be linked to the death of an innocent, the matter would be halachically open and shut: it would be absolutely impermissible for Jews to own guns. But that is not the fact, and therefore there is an open question as to whether or in what degree Jews can or should own guns.

A case very likely cannot be made that it is absolutely impermissible, halachically, for American Jews to own any guns. A case could certainly be made that if a Jew owns a gun, it must be what is minimally necessary for defense of themselves and their home: one legal and licensed gun, say; unmodified, and kept unloaded, trigger locked, and in a locked gun box or gun safe; owned and used only by someone or persons trained in firearms safety; and who properly educated their children about the dangers of firearms. And I think probably an argument could be made that a Jew should only purchase a previously used gun, not a new weapon, in order to reduce the profits of the weapons manufacturers (because of the ethical problem of supporting most weapons manufacturers, who tend to be unscrupulous about who they sell their products to, and who tend to support reckless deregulation of firearms; both of which, Jewishly speaking, render them at least somewhat morally culpable for the carnage to which weapons in the wrong hands inevitably leads). Actually, by the same reasoning, Jewish gun owners should also probably smith their own ammunition, in order to further reduce economic support of weapon and ammunition manufacturers. And an argument could also definitely be made that Jews should not seek membership with groups like the National Rifle Association, since it and groups like it also support reckless deregulation of firearms and other ways of evading responsibility that facilitate loss of innocent life.

However, even for American Jews who would abide by such halachic restrictions, I think the principle of acting lifnim mishurat ha-din demands an even higher level of moral responsibility. Owning guns, in and of itself, is of questionable purpose in a country not at war with anyone on its borders. If the issue is one of sport and hobby, there are other hobbies where things less likely to harm others may be collected, and other sports that involve aim, hand-eye coordination, and even tracking skills. If the issue is hunting (for non-Jews), hunting can be done with bow and arrow, or with spear, as in the old days: some might say this is even a more sporting kind of hunting, requiring greater skill and practice. If the issue is self-defense, one can be careful where one goes; one can install better locks on one’s doors; one could learn a martial art or a discipline of self-defense like krav maga; one could arm oneself with pepper spray or taser; one could even acquire and become trained to use a knife or sword, batons or staves, or other classic weapons that do not as easily facilitate mass mayhem. But guns simply end up causing too much innocent death.

We have a longstanding principle, kol yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh b’inyan ha-mitzvot, “All the people Israel are responsible for one another in the matter of observing the mitzvot.” Application of the principle of acting lifnim mishurat hadin suggests that we have mutual responsibility even with non-Jews when it comes certain mitzvot– matters of life and death, of creating just societies. We and our non-Jewish fellow Americans need to cooperate on gun control.

For all the political posturing that follows in the wake of every fresh horror when some nutcase gets his hands on military-grade weaponry, thanks to the virtual nonexistence of serious firearm regulation in this country, and shoots up a public place– movie theaters, school classrooms, universities, freeways, whatever– it is clear that without serious and unyielding pressure from the majority of the populace, our elected leaders are never going to pass any meaningful gun control legislation, and thus deprive themselves of the fat “campaign contributions” that weapons manufacturers and the military-industrial complex in general offer them (an interesting conversation might also be had about the mitzvah of shochad lo tikach— not taking bribes, Ex. 23:8– though that’s probably for a different time). We must stick together and press this issue if we are to save lives.

Part of this has to be voluntarily refusing gun ownership. Even though it might technically be permissible. Even though American law as it stands permits it, and we have a principle of dina d’malchuta dina hee (“The law of the land is binding upon you”). We need to be moral exemplars in this. We need to go beyond the ethical starting point of the law and do better. Be better. Lest, as the saying goes, innocent blood be shed.

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler and their son and daughter.

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