New Haven rabbi explores the Jewish position on gun control
By Cindy Mindell
NEW HAVEN – As the U.S. engages in a significant debate on gun control and gun safety, many perspectives are being brought to the table, from religious organizations, local government representatives, and policy-makers to NRA officials, ordinary citizens, and academics. The guidelines for gun management will be drawn from Constitutional law and an acknowledgement of human frailties, but Jewish law has something to add to the mix as well.
How does Judaism prescribe and proscribe our relationship with weaponry? On Jan. 26, Connecticut residents will have an opportunity to engage in this discussion when Rabbi Yaakov Komisar presents “Jewish Positions on Gun Control,” part of the annual “A Taste of Honey” adult Jewish learning event at JCC of Greater New Haven.
Komisar is an educator and rabbi at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge and a teacher at The Conservative Synagogue in Westport. He gained first hand knowledge of guns while serving in the Israeli military, and then stayed in Israel, studying simultaneously at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, the Straus-Amiel Institute for Training Rabbis and Educators for the Diaspora, and Yeshivat Hesder Tekoa, founded by renowned Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Komisar was ordained from the yeshiva in 2009 and went on to serve as editor and coordinator of English translation at Shefa/Steinsaltz Center.
Komisar holds an MA from American University in comparative and regional studies, focusing on the Middle East, and in international peace and conflict resolution. He was selected as one of 40 participants to attend the Kivun Intensive, a five-month professional-development program for young professionals in the American Jewish communal sector. He is completing a Master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, where he is both a Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow and Benjamin Botwinik Fellow in Jewish Pluralism.
Komisar is a former Torah portion columnist at the Baltimore Jewish Times. As an educator, he has served at The Spark Center for Jewish Learning at Jewish Funds for Justice and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
He spoke with the Ledger about how Jewish law untangles the complex issues behind owning and using weapons.
Q: How did you choose this topic for your presentation at A Taste of Honey?
A: My goal as a teacher and rabbi, both at Ezra Academy and in any other context, is to bring the inherited wisdom of our Jewish tradition into our lives. I want to help facilitate a consideration of what the ancient wisdom of our ancestors has to say about the issues that we face today as individuals and as a society.
In the aftermath of the horrific events in Newtown and elsewhere – the streets of Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven included – and the ensuing conversation about gun control legislation, I felt that this was a perfect opportunity to see if traditional Jewish texts could shed light onto a seemingly uniquely modern problem.
Q: Explain your title, “Jewish Positions on Gun Control.” Are we talking about rabbinic/halachic/Talmudic sources? Official positions of the various denominational movements? Stances within the Jewish lay community?
A: I’m looking at Biblical and rabbinic positions including some selections from the Mishnah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, etc…
I’m much less concerned with the official positions of the various denominational movements, as I feel that often the denominations determine the position they would like to take and then adapt the sources to fit their position. I am wary of religious organizations getting that involved in political positions. I am more interested in a group of private citizens reflecting on the sources that inform their faith tradition and using those sources to help them determine their positions, rather than the other way around.
Q: Do you own guns?
A: I am a gun owner, though I am not a member of the NRA or any other such organization. I was raised in a fairly typical liberal Jewish family in America and was never exposed to firearms. I was generally against private firearm ownership, though I had little experience on which to base my position. At about 14 or 15 years old, I was with a few friends, hanging out in a parking lot after seeing a movie, waiting for our parents to come pick us up, when we were mugged at gunpoint. That certainly had an impact on how I viewed firearms and private firearm ownership.
The biggest impact on my views of firearms, however, came from my experience in Israel. I moved to Israel when I was about 24 years old, and I was drafted into a combat unit of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. Between my military training, seeing armed guards outside of schools, cafes, and shopping malls, seeing off-duty soldiers in the street everywhere with their rifles, and seeing civilians who openly carried their firearms, I found that over time I actually felt a lot more secure knowing that if, God forbid, something were to happen, there were people a few feet away from me who were able to intervene.
I own a gun now to protect my family in the case of an emergency. We live in a neighborhood near downtown New Haven that’s experienced its share of violence, and I want to be prepared.
Q: Do you base your decision to own and use guns on a Jewish ethos and/or on halacha?
A: I base all of my decisions on Jewish ethics and halachic considerations. That is not to say that the halacha is completely clear about firearm ownership, hence the necessity for a session like this one at A Taste of Honey, where we can explore the sources. I’m really interested in understanding what Jewish traditions teach about the implications of carrying weapons, the implications of having weapons available in society, security precautions that must be taken, stumbling blocks that might be placed in the way of others, etc.
Q: What does a halachically observant Jew have to take into consideration when making the decision to own and use a gun?
A: The central part of my talk will cover whether Judaism recognizes that there are legitimate reasons for personally owning and using weapons. We have texts that deal with self-defense and texts that deal with security precautions taken for one’s property. We’ll talk about the halachic issues of responsibility for damages if someone else acquires your weapon and does harm with it. For this reason, it’s forbidden to sell weapons to idolaters and criminals. This is like the Talmud’s version of a background check.
One of the biggest issues that must be dealt with is the question of whether weapons are muktzeh on Shabbat, meaning they are items that one may not handle on the Sabbath. Another question is whether one can carry a weapon when there is no eruv. We will be looking at the Gemara Shabbat 63a in depth at A Taste of Honey. It begins by saying that “One must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, lance, or spear; and if he goes out, he incurs a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer said: They are ornaments for him. But the Sages maintain they are merely shameful, for it is said, ‘and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’”
When I was in the IDF, the first Shabbat that I was on the base, when I was still in basic training, we were expected to carry our rifles around even though we did not have any ammunition. I had to determine whether this was permitted according to my understanding of Jewish law. Without ammunition, what is my M16? Is it an ornament? Is it shameful? What about when I carry my weapon with me when on leave, back in Jerusalem? In that case I would be carrying it with ammunition, but is it necessary to have it with me? Am I in any real danger walking the streets of Jerusalem that would justify carrying it around on Shabbat?
Of course these are issues that are relevant to carrying a firearm. God forbid one was actually forced to use their firearm in self-defense. There are a myriad of other issues that come up then, such as pikuach nefesh, the value of saving a life.
The bottom line, the central point, is that Judaism emphasizes collective responsibility. Halacha recognizes the importance of self-defense, and that a society with fewer weapons is a safer society. The laws mandate personal responsibility for anything dangerous – anything capable of doing serious harm must be dealt with the utmost care. When you build a house, you must put a fence around the roof to ensure that no one falls off. If you entrust a pit on your property to someone and they allow another person to fall in, you are responsible for damages. In the same way, we have to take serious precautions when it comes to anything dangerous, and recognize that our responsibility goes beyond ourselves to creating a safer society for everyone.
At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is balancing really weighty and competing moral values – the good of the individual vs. the good of society. Jewish texts indicate that society might be better off without weapons available at all, lest they fall into the wrong hands. At the same time, these texts mandate the right to hold a weapon for self-defense. The inherited wisdom of the rabbinic tradition can help us understand how to balance these competing moral imperatives.
Q: What are the issues, in that context: self-defense, defense of family and country, etc.
A: Of course, self-defense and defense of family are the primary issues. Other issues I would like to address in the session are the idea of arms at the national level. If we come to certain conclusions about arms being a stumbling block before the blind if allowed to fall into the wrong hands, for example, what about the State of Israel selling weapons to countries that might not be exemplars of high moral values? The Rambam says that “It is forbidden to sell heathens weapons of war, nor is it permitted to sharpen their spears, or to sell them knives, manacles, iron chains, bears, lions, or any object which can cause harm to the public, but it is permitted to sell them shields which are solely for defense.” Yet Israel is one of the top arms exporters in the world! Moreover, as American citizens, how does the Rambam influence our positions toward supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels or to Afghan warlords?
Rabbi Komisar will discuss “Jewish Positions on Gun Control” at A Taste of Honey on Saturday, Jan. 26, 7-11 p.m. at the JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge. For more information or to register visit www.tasteofhoney.jccnh.org or call (203) 387-2522.
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