The controversy over gun rights and responsibilities is one that the Jewish community must take seriously. The recent examples of Buffalo and Uvalde, not to mention Pittsburgh and Poway, call for us to express our serious concerns to our state and federal legislators.
An initial comment concerns a recent famous Supreme Court case involving guns, District of Columbia v. Heller, in which Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion for the Court, said “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on … laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” Even Justice Scalia recognized that there can be limits on guns.
Guns, of course, are not mentioned anywhere in the Torah or the Talmud, because guns did not exist in any form until the 1300s. However, there are laws in the Torah and Talmud that do apply to the issue of gun safety and violence. Relevant laws include those having to do with the sanctity of life, the ox that gored, the open pit, the stumbling block, and others. By examining these, we find that the Torah and Jewish law do have something to say to us on guns.
The Torah addresses the sanctity of life in many places, in particular in Deuteronomy 4:9: “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” And in the Shuchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, states that the Deuteronomy verse is a positive commandment to remove and destroy anything that poses a possible danger to life. (Choshen Mishpat 427:8)
The goring ox and the open pit laws are found in Exodus 21:29-36. That section starts with an ox that habitually gores and “its owner, although warned, has failed to guard it.”
The open pit deals with someone digging a hole in the ground and leaving it uncovered, leading to the death or injury of someone. These verses deal with instances of carelessness that lead to harm. Commentator Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer states that the ox that gores represents anything we own that we either suspect or know can cause injury to people or property.
And the open pit represents any public hazard we create, such as in modern times parking in a crosswalk, which forces people to go outside the crosswalk to cross the street or forcing cars into the opposite lane of traffic by double-parking on a busy two-lane street.
Together, the ox and the pit are relevant to the gun control debate. Guns can injure and kill, and the owners know that. They are no different from the owner of the ox who is forewarned. Pointing a gun at any person for other than self-defense is creating an unacceptable risk of injury or death. Purchasing high-capacity magazines, semi-automatic assault rifles, and bump stocks are creating an unacceptable risk to the sanctity of human life. None of those are needed for legitimate hunting or self-defense.
Another verse, “You shall not . . . place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), relates to the sale of guns to those who are incapable of appropriate use of the guns, such as allowing 18-year-olds to purchase or use assault weapons. They are blind to the danger since their young minds are not fully capable of rational thought where danger is concerned.
We members of the Jewish community can lend much to the debate over gun safety. We must all speak out over the rights and responsibilities associated with owning guns. Our state and federal legislators must hear our voices and govern according to the good sense that is embedded in our ancient tradition, a tradition much older than the introduction of guns to society.
Harold Kirtz is President of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta.
- Harold Kirtz
- gun rights
- Second Amendment
- District of Columbia v. Heller
- Supreme Court
- Justice Scalia
- Deuteronomy 4:9
- Shuchan Aruch
- Code of Jewish Law
- Choshen Mishpat 427:8
- Exodus 21:29-36
- Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer
- Leviticus 19:14
- Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta