The Rabbinical Council of America released this resolution two months ago:
In response to the terrible proliferation of fatal shootings in the United States that result in part from Americans’ easy access to lethal weapons, a brief yet comprehensive 2014 resolution of the 1000+ members of Rabbinical Council of America addresses gun usage and ownership in the United States from personal, legal, cultural, and religious perspectives. Asserting the Torah’s perspective that war, weaponry, and violence are “necessary evils in our unredeemed world” as well as the Torah’s view that, contrary to some strains of American culture, such matters must be approached with appropriate gravitas even when warranted, the RCA favors restricting Americans’ easy access to weapons and ammunition and encourages all to desist from recreational activities that desensitize participants to killing, weaponry, and violence.
Formally adopted by a direct vote of the RCA membership, the full text of “2014 Resolution: Gun Violence in America” states:
WHEREAS War, killing, physical violence, and weaponry are necessary evils in our unredeemed world; and,
WHEREAS Engagement with these matters ought at all times to be conducted with gravitas commensurate with their destructive nature; and,
WHEREAS Jewish law adopts the opinion of the Sages (Mishna Shabbat 6:4) that weapons ought never be glorified or viewed as adornments even when their possession is justified, in contradistinction to certain strains of American culture; and,
WHEREAS The Rabbinical Council of America has noted with anguish and alarm some of the recent shooting deaths in schools and elsewhere in the United States (here, here, and here); and,
WHEREAS The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America expressed support for federal legislation to prevent gun violence in 2013 and as early as 1968
Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America
Condones, when permitted by local ordinance, private American citizens owning or learning how to use weapons or to engage in violent acts for justified purposes such as self-defense, when undertaken with appropriate gravitas; and
Favors restricting American citizens’ easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition; and
Urges all to desist from and discourage recreational activities that desensitize participants to, make light of, or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons; and
Anxiously seeks the fulfillment of the prophetic vision, “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
A source whom I trust, though, reports that, in the “direct vote of the RCA membership,” of the 1000+ RCA members, only 90 voted for the resolution, 62 voted against, and the other 850+ did not vote. (Apparently the resolution was sent out by e-mail for people to vote on, so that likely led to a very low turnout.)
In any event, a dozen Orthodox rabbis — including three members of the same Rabbinical Council of America’s National Executive Committee, six more RCA members, and three non-members — just responded with this counter-statement:
JOINT STATEMENT BY THE GOLANI RIFLE & PISTOL CLUB, RABBI STEVEN PRUZANSKY, RABBI DAVID BENDORY, AND OTHER RABBIS IN SUPPORT OF JEWISH LAW, JEWISH LIFE, AND JEWISH SELF-DEFENSE
September 15, 2014.
We the undersigned declare our support for Jewish Law, Jewish life, and Jewish self-defense, and therefore our opposition to the recent, bewildering statement by the Rabbinical Council of America (“RCA”) that promotes arbitrary gun control measures (see “2014 Resolution: Gun Violence in America, issued August 13, 2014, at http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=105804) and explicitly endorses a similar statement by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America (“OU”) (see “OU Supports Federal Legislation to Prevent Gun Violence,” issued April 9, 2013, at http://www.ou.org/news/ou_supports_federal_legislation_to_prevent_gun_violence/).
The RCA’s statement, like that of the OU, is rife with platitudes, ignores basic facts, and fails to recognize Judaism’s strong support for the value and practice of armed self-defense. Although the RCA reluctantly condones legal gun ownership, their statement evinces an overall hostility to gun possession and self-defense, and completely fails to address the limitations on the self-defense rights of the law-abiding public, who live under threat from violent criminals (including Jew-haters). When a premier rabbinical body of modern orthodoxy takes a public position on an issue as critical to the Jewish people as gun regulation, it is incumbent on them first to contemplate all relevant considerations, not least of which is the well-publicized and increasing violence against Jews worldwide. This the RCA and OU have failed to do.
In response, we present below many of the reasons why these two organizations should reconsider their prior positions, and instead encourage Jews to remain ready, vigilant, and armed. The RCA and OU should promote legislation that offers law-abiding citizens full protection of their right to self-defense, both inside and outside the home, especially in the most restrictive states, which contain large Jewish population centers. All Jews, like all Americans, should be able to exercise, in a sober and prudent manner, their fundamental right and halachic obligation to defend themselves, their families, and communities, whenever the need arises.
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• There are already strict measures in place to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The RCA’s and OU’s support for “restricting American citizens’ easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunitions” does not take into account the regulations that already exist nationwide, including exceptionally stringent regulations in the tri-state area around New York City that effectively ban carrying guns outside the home and subject peaceful citizens to prosecution merely for being ready to defend themselves. Access to firearms by violent criminals is already illegal, and access by the mentally ill is already restricted. It is grossly misleading to suggest that the current, complex legal regime at the federal, state, and local levels does not exist. Furthermore, the RCA and OU fail to explain why imposing additional draconian restrictions and penalties on peaceful citizens will stop criminals from obtaining guns. In fact, adding to the burdens on the law-abiding will only render them more helpless if they are assaulted – especially in places (such as synagogues) which are likely targets of nefarious people who disobey the law and commit their crimes while heavily armed. The approach taken by the RCA and OU leave their Jewish constituents virtually defenseless in the face of deadly threats.
• To stop crime, stop criminals. Everyone recognizes that a tool is not responsible for the action of the person who holds it. For instance, we do not speak of the annual murders committed with baseball bats as “bat violence.” Yet we are told that guns, unlike any other tools, actually cause crime. The real causes of crime, of course, are more complex and more difficult to address. It is much easier to talk about guns than to consider issues like family breakdown and educational decline. But focusing on guns is no more effective than focusing on any other implement used by criminals. We might as well try to regulate criminals’ shoes, gloves, masks, or cars.
• Gun control has proven ineffective at stopping crime. The RCA and OU have ignored many key facts, among which are the following:
1) Violent crime, including crime involving guns, has been declining steadily over the last two decades, at the same time as the majority of states have been lifting restrictions on the right to self-defense;
2) Spree shootings in schools or on government property are very rare events, representing a tiny fraction of annual homicides;
3) Such shootings have most often occurred in locations that have been declared officially “gun free,” which gives notice to criminals that they will be able to commit their crimes without immediate challenge;
4) The vast majority of gun homicides are committed by a relatively small population of hardened, recidivist criminals who are not deterred by laws restricting gun purchases;
5) The rates of violent crime tend to be higher in areas with the most restrictive gun laws.
• Gun owners stop criminals and save lives every day. The RCA and OU fail to recognize that ordinary citizens use guns to protect themselves and others every single day. Across the country, mothers, fathers, and even children successfully protect their families against home invaders and carjackers. Women protect themselves against rapists. Business owners and store clerks protect themselves against armed robbers. Whether by brandishing a gun, pointing it, or shooting it, gun owners are able to fend off criminals and, often, to hold them until police arrive, saving not only their own lives but the lives of future victims. While many of these incidents go unreported (and somehow none of them ever seem to make the pages of the New York Times), they happen nonetheless. For a small selection of relevant news stories, the RCA and OU might consult the Guns Save Lives blog at www.gunssavelives.net. For further relevant facts and analysis, they might examine the “Facts about Guns” section of The Truth About Guns blog at http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/gun-facts/.
• Peaceful gun ownership promotes equality. The statements by the RCA and OU do not consider the inevitable and unequal consequences of disarmament. Guns are “equalizers.” They empower citizens of any size or capability to withstand attack from vicious criminals. To deny this tool to peaceful citizens is to put them at the mercy of those who are stronger or more numerous. And those who are physically weakest will be most vulnerable. We prefer to read stories about grandmothers who made burglars turn tail and flee, teenagers who drove off home invaders, and wheelchair-bound men who stopped robbers, rather than obituaries about their unjust demise.
• Jewish history supports self-defense. It is remarkable that the RCA and OU have ignored the long Jewish history of persecution. The Jewish people have been murdered and persecuted in nearly every era and place on the globe. From the Crusades to the Chmielnicki massacres to the Holocaust, we have lost millions of lives to those who took advantage of our inability to defend ourselves. Even now — in this season, this week, indeed, this very day — we are being attacked in Europe and in Israel by enemies who without shame call in public for our deaths. Nor are we completely safe in the U.S., where terrorists have conspired against synagogues and individual Jews have been attacked. It should be clear that the threats against Jews in the U.S. and abroad are serious and increasing. It should be just as clear to the RCA and OU that further limiting our ability to defend ourselves at such a time is the very last thing Jewish leaders should be demanding.
• Self-defense does not equate to vigilantism. It is important to note in passing that, contrary to what is commonly alleged, possessing the tools and obtaining the training to defend oneself does not turn one into a vigilante. Many thousands of Jews are already gun owners, and yet they have not engaged in any rash of crimes. Jews as a people understand all too well how precious life is and how important it is to preserve it. However, we cannot and must not ignore the maxim of Chazal: “Haba lehargecha hashkem lehargo.” (“If one comes to kill you, kill him first.”)
• We have a duty of self-defense under Jewish Law. Our mitzvot oblige us to preserve and defend Jewish lives. This obligation is all the more important while we are in Exile and therefore at greater risk. Rendering Jews less capable of self-defense and more dependent upon others runs counter to our halachic duty, endangers all Jewry and emboldens our enemies. (Also, others are more likely to help defend us if we show that we are willing to defend ourselves.)
• The Torah praises self-defense. The Torah recognizes armed self-defense as a requirement for a free people. As Exodus 13:18 states, “The children of Israel went up out of Egypt armed.” The Israelites were no longer slaves; they were armed. Indeed, from its early chapters, the Torah teaches that readiness for armed conflict is a moral duty and necessary for Jewish survival. When Lot was kidnapped, Avraham led 318 armed men to battle in order to save him. The Torah does not say that the men had to train for battle; they were already trained. Jewry today should likewise engage in training and stand ready to defend themselves.
• The Tanach praises self-defense. The Tanach is replete with accounts of the heroic wars of Israel, from Joshua to Gideon, from David to Josiah. As in the instance of Avraham above, the Jews were able to fight because they were armed and trained. None of these leaders would have been able to go into battle if the Jews had not already readied themselves.
• Channukah celebrates self-defense. Every year on Channukah, Jews celebrate and praise the Maccabees for their armed defense of the Torah and Jewish life. Should Jews today not emulate the Maccabees’ bravery and skill?
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Like the RCA, we look forward to a day of universal peace, when “the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem,” when G-d “will judge between the nations,” and weapons will no longer be required to defend ourselves against our enemies. But we pray for such a future with open eyes, conscious of centuries of Jewish helplessness and of the growing number of attacks on Jews today. The assumption that an era of peace and brotherhood will dawn if we disarm ourselves, limit our access to firearms, or vitiate our right of self-defense, has no support in Jewish history, the teachings of the Torah, or present reality. Plowshares and pruning hooks will not defend Jews against enemies equipped with swords, spears, and deadlier weapons. Pretending otherwise will only undermine the preservation of the Jewish people — and the security of all Americans.