Terrible events invite profound soul-searching as to what went wrong and how to prevent similar events from happening again.

The following essay, written in the wake of the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007, is an attempt to explore these questions through the lens of Jewish law:

We are all devastated by the horror and senselessness of it all. As a rabbi who engages in pastoral work, I—like most of my colleagues—know that the wounds will persist in families and friends and teachers for many years to come; in fact, for lifetimes.

One of the things we have seen is an intensifying of the gun control debate by well-meaning citizens on both sides of the issue. Frankly this creates a debate within ourselves as well. Many of us appreciate and are torn between both approaches to this vexing issue.

As Jews, our teachings tell us that preserving human life is the greatest human calling, and murder the most depraved attack on man and G‑d there can be.

The question is: What does Jewish tradition and law tell us about the best way to preserve human life?

I think if we honestly look at matters we can see that, on one hand,

  1. The murderer could not have killed anywhere near the number killed had he had a weapon other than a firearm. He was outnumbered by his victims 20, 30 and 40 to 1. Only a semiautomatic weapon gave him the ability to kill so many without hindrance.

  2. If there were stricter background checks and other encumbrances in place, he may have been prevented from acquiring a handgun legally.

  3. If no one but the police and military had weapons, it would be very difficult to acquire a gun, even illegally (as is the case in Japan and the UK).

On the other hand,

  1. If weapons had been permitted on the VT campus, a student or professor may have stopped the killer before so many were killed. As it was, only a person breaking the law had a weapon available to him—the murderer.

  2. The murderer "flew beneath the radar." It is possible that no system of flagging suspicious individuals could have helped in this case, or would help in similar cases in the future.

    It is rarer by far, but determined criminals even in Japan and the UK can get illegal guns. Just the other day the mayor of Nagasaki in Japan was killed by a firearm wielded by a gang member. And with 200 million guns in this country, it may not be possible to remove every one from circulation—even if as society we wanted to. Hence maybe law-abiding citizens should have the ability to defend themselves.

  3. Even if only the police and military have weapons –what if a policeman goes on a rampage against unarmed and defenseless citizens? Indeed, in 1982 South Korean policeman Woo Bum-Kon killed 57 people, then himself, in rural South Korea using a high-powered rifle and grenades.

    There is a claim that in the United States, many people save themselves from criminal attack by the use or the threat of the use of a firearm. Judaic law would seem to direct us to ask: Can this claim be substantiated or refuted? And if substantiated, we must ask: Which approach in the aggregate saves more lives?

These are all arguments wielded by reasonable, good and caring people –who exist in large numbers on both sides of the societal divide this issue creates in our nation.

So where does Judaism stand on the issue?

I believe the issue can be argued on both sides from a Judaic point of view.

I. On one hand:

1) Talmud, Shabbat 63a:

One must not go out [on Shabbat] with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a triangular shield, nor with a round one, nor with a spear; if he does so he is liable for a sin-offering. R. Eliezer says they are ornaments to him [and thus permitted to be worn on Shabbat], but the sages say they are nothing but a stigma, for it is written [Isaiah 2:4]: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Weapons and their possession are a reproach to mankind –and not anything desirable.

2) Talmud, Bava Kama 46a:

R. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text [Deuteronomy 24:8], "You shall bring not blood upon your house."

I.e., it is forbidden to have anything likely to cause damage about one's domicile.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria ("Maharshal") points out that many authorities forbid raising a dangerous dog even if it is kept chained. This would indicate that a dangerous object—such as a gun—is forbidden, even if it is supposedly safeguarded. However he points out elsewhere in the tractate (fol 83) that in a "dangerous area" one may keep a bad tempered dog that one chains by day and allows to patrol one's property by night.

In conclusion, we are commanded to avoid all danger to our lives. There is no question that a gun is fundamentally a dangerous object, designed to kill.

II. On the other hand...

In Exodus 22:1 we read:

If, while breaking in, the thief is discovered, and he is struck and dies, [it is as if] he has no blood.

Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Tanach (the original, Jewish name for the 24 books of the Bible) who gathers together millennia of interpretation, comments:

"He has no blood. [This signifies that] this is not [considered] murder. It is as though he [the thief] is [considered] dead from the start. Here the Torah teaches you: If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. And this one [the thief] has come to kill you, because he knows that a person will not hold himself back and remain silent when he sees people taking his money. Therefore, he [the thief] has come with the acknowledgement that if the owner of the property were to stand up against him, he [thief] would kill him [the owner]. - [From Talmud Sanhedrin 72a]"

Here we clearly see the rule, "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first." If we are told by the Almighty to defend ourselves, clearly we may possess the wherewithal to do so. In today's world there is no better tool—if G‑d forbid it comes to this—than a firearm. Only with a firearm is the proverbial little old lady living alone a match for the hulking thug. A baseball bat won't give her much of a chance. And law enforcement officials rarely have a chance to intervene to save a victim at the moment of the crime.

We indeed yearn for the time of the Final Redemption when "They shall beat their swords into plowshares" but it is a very poor idea to do this unilaterally before that point in history!

We believe the teachings of the Torah—including the obligation we have to ourselves to guard our own lives—to be eternal; but the technology to carry them out should be the best available in our era.

This obligation is codified in Jewish law as part of a range of obligations centered on preserving our health and well being, as well as the obligation to defend ourselves or a third party against aggression.

Under Jewish Law there is an obligation for a private citizen to assist another in trouble: "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:16)" and as Rashi comments, quoting the legal texts of the Talmud:

"You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood. [I.e., do not stand by,] watching your fellow's death, when you are able to save him; for example, if he is drowning in the river or if a wild beast or robbers come upon him. — [Torat Kohanim 19:41; Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a]"

We cannot exempt ourselves of this obligation – even though in this country we have a wonderful and dedicated corps of law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel. We should respect them and support them in every way possible, as they have devoted their lives to the rescue of their fellows –but our obligation to our fellow remains: if we see someone in trouble we cannot absolve ourselves of our obligation by the fact that "professionals" exist somewhere.

One can therefore make the argument that it would be wrong to deprive citizens of the "tools" most suited to this task, e.g. firearms. Our Sages have a saying "A broken wall calls out to the thief [to come in]." If the law dictates that a citizen may not be armed –the criminals will arm themselves and be unafraid of opposition –as those who abide by the law will be defenseless.

Yet it must be noted that Jewish law forbids the sale of arms to people who are suspect of criminal intentions. We read in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 15b):

And it has further been taught: One should not sell them either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one grind any weapon for them, not may one sell them either stocks or neck-chains or ropes, or iron chains — neither to idolaters nor Cutheans.

The Talmud extends this prohibition to Jewish criminals as well, clearly demonstrating the responsibility to enforce background checks on prospective arms owners.

What of the dangers inherent in improperly stored and handled firearms? We are taught,

"When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]" (Deuteronomy 22:8)

The Rabbis derive from this that we must create "fences" in all dangerous situations to prevent "blood spilled" in your house. However the Torah did not forbid flat roofs –it mandates fences. We need to be responsible with things that may be dangerous, not prevented from having them.

One more quote: There is a fascinating commentary by Nachmanides (13th Century) on Genesis 4:20-24. The verses read:

Now Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle.
And his brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who grasp a lyre and a flute.
And Zillah she too bore Tubal Cain, who sharpened all tools that cut copper and iron, and Tubal Cain's sister was Na'amah.
Now Lemech said to his wives, "Adah and Zillah, hearken to my voice; wives of Lemech, incline your ears to my words; for have I slain a man by wounding (him)? A child by bruising (him)?
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then for Lemech it shall be seventy-seven fold."

What is going on over here? What is this marital spat between Lemech and his two wives all about?

Nachmanides explains: Lemech was very wise and taught one son herding, the other music, and the third metallurgy. His wives remonstrated with him that the introduction of ironworking would enable the production of weapons and bring murder to the world. Lemech responds to them: "Have I killed a man, as great-grandpa Cain has done seven generations ago? It is not the sword that kills, but the bad choice by a man. Without a sword, too, a man could kill another by wounding and battering as did Cain..."

Swords do kill – but only if they have evil intent behind them

So who was right in this debate – Lemech or his wives?

Nachmanides leaves the question unanswered.

In conclusion I leave to you, my dear reader, to judge, based on these sources, where Judaism stands on gun control.

That being said, after all of the above to the extent that these arguments might advocate granting permission to private citizens to own guns, certainly Jewish law and ethics would ask, and demand the following:

  • What type of weapons, magazines etc., do they reasonably need for self defense? Only those can be in good reason permitted.

  • How can we make sure that those with a criminal past or the mentally unstable (as in the Talmud Avoda Zarah quoted above) cannot access weapons? This would include restrictions on weapon ownership by those with whom they reside – as the unstable or criminal would then have access to the weapons as well.

  • We would be obliged to use every possible technological means to prevent these people from acquiring arms under any circumstances, e.g., a robust national system of background checks.

As per the above-quoted ruling that on the border one may keep an aggressive dog, but not in more settled areas, we should accept the demographic diversity of a huge country and understand that citizens of New York City and those residing in the Southwestern cattle country might have very different needs in these regards, based on the ubiquity or lack thereof of law enforcement personnel. Thus, many of these questions should properly and ethically be devolved to as local a level as possible.

It is my prayer, which I am certain all our readers share, that we never again see parents bury children snatched from them in the very beginnings of their adult lives and that we shall very soon enter that era in which we shall no longer need to think of defense against violence as it is written: "And a wolf shall live with a lamb….They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the land shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea" (Isaiah 11:6-9).