In light of the response of a dozen rabbis to a Rabbinical Council of America resolution on gun violence in America in several media, including the Volokh Conspiracy, I would like to clarify a few things about that resolution.
1) In the interests of full disclosure: I was chairman of the RCA Resolutions Committee that drafted the resolution in question. I do not speak for the RCA or for the committee, but I can attest that the committee worded the resolution very carefully and made an effort to express a view that would reflect the extraordinary diversity of opinion within the RCA.
2) Discussion should be limited to the resolution itself, not to the accompanying press release, which was neither drafted by the committee nor voted on by the RCA’s membership.
3) The resolution was about “gun violence” and not “gun control.” The only line in the resolution that can be interpreted to favor gun control states that the RCA “Favors restricting American citizens’ easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition.” The opponents state, on one hand, that there are already regulations and that they are too restrictive (“exceptionally stringent regulations in the tri-state area … that effectively … subject peaceful citizens to prosecution merely for being ready to defend themselves”), and that the sort of restrictions implied by the resolution are perforce “draconian.” They are simply over-reading the line in question, which (intentionally) does not espouse any particular type of existing or future regulation or any particular means of impeding access.
4) On the other hand, the resolution says that the RCA “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.” This approbation is deemed “reluctant,” and the resolution as a whole is interpreted to “evince an overall hostility to gun possession.” This is, once again, a gross over-read of what the resolution actually says.
5) The key point of the resolution is cultural, and that is what I will address in the ensuing points. The resolution cites a Mishna (chapter 6, paragraph 4) — a second century rabbinic text — from the tractate dealing with the laws of Shabbat, the Sabbath. According to Jewish law, one is not permitted to transport an object from a private to a public domain, or within a public domain, on Shabbat. This restriction does not apply to clothing and adornments, and so the ancient rabbis extensively debate what is and is not considered clothing or adornment. The Mishna in question presents a dispute about whether men may go in public on Shabbat bearing a sword, shield, lance, or spear. That is, it questions whether bearing such objects is strictly utilitarian, in which case it would be forbidden, or an adornment, in which case it would be permitted. Rabbi Eliezer states as a matter of fact that they are an adornment. The Sages — the accepted majority position — state that such an object is not an adornment, but a source of shame. Surprisingly, they cite Isaiah 2:4 — an eschatological vision — as a prooftext for what is and is not considered an adornment in second-century Roman Judea. That is, the Sages acknowledge that the prevailing culture may well relate to weapons as adornments, yet take the view that it is unacceptable for a Jew to relate to weapons in this manner, even if it is an element of the prevailing culture. It is important to note that this Mishna is not hostile to ownership of weapons, nor does it advocate their control. The Sages articulate an attitude — shaped by a prophetic vision but anchored in practice in the laws of Shabbat — that views weapons not as an adornment, not as a source of pride or honor, but as something abhorrent, a source of shame. For an outstanding reading of this Mishna and the talmudic discussion of it, see this essay by Prof. Chaim Saiman
6) The RCA resolution is shaped by and is entirely consistent with the Sages’ prevailing view. The first line of the resolution states that “War, killing, physical violence, and weaponry are necessary evils.” Positing that these are “necessary evils” implies a rejection of the view that they are unnecessary as well as a rejection of the view that they are not abhorrent. The resolution then explicitly espouses the view of the Sages in the Mishna in Shabbat. Finally, the last line of the resolution cites the very same prooftext that was cited by the Sages in that Mishna when it states that the RCA “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).”
7) The resolution is thus not about particular laws and regulations but a critique of elements of American culture that valorize weaponry and violence. That is, it is a critique of American gun culture. From first to last, and everything in the middle, the resolution is nothing but a reformulation and re-application of the worldview of the Sages of the Mishna to contemporary American gun culture. Of course, Rabbi Eliezer disagreed with the Sages on this matter, and Jewish tradition records and preserves his view as well. It may be useful to view the present debate as instantiation of that very same dispute.