Unnecessary Danger: A Reflection on Guns, Violence and Personal Safety

There have been several important articles written in the last week using traditional Jewish sources to either support or subvert gun control. I would like to add to that discussion but in a slightly different way, explaining and interpreting an obscure, yet relevant, 18th century legal ruling.

The formidable traditionalist, Rabbi Ezekial Landau (1713-1793, Prague), was once asked if it would be permissible, according to Jewish law, for an observant Jew to enter the forests and hunt -- for sport -- with a rifle.

Rabbi Landau argues that although there may not be an explicit violation of a legal principle -- either animal cruelty or unnecessary waste -- any Jew who hunts solely for pleasure is participating in something cruel and outside the boundaries of the Jewish ethical tradition. To be clear, he purposefully does not include killing an animal for safety and/or sustenance -- an immediate need. But he is severely opposed to anything short of those two necessities.

The crux of Rabbi Landau's argument against hunting for sport, though, relies on a somewhat general teaching from the Bible: "And you shall be very watchful of yourselves" (Deuteronomy 4:15). In other words, carefully guard your own safety and do not intentionally place yourself in danger without pressing need. Rabbi Landau contended that in order to hunt one must willingly enter places where there is risk present, in this case, the forest. While the modern sport of hunting may be less precarious, anyone who has hunted with Dick Cheney would have to agree that it isn't without potential harm.

He buttresses this argument using a biblical character, Esau. Rabbi Landau writes:

"And could one find a more qualified and expert hunter than Esau?! No! Yet the Torah teaches that Esau himself exclaimed about his life's profession, 'Here I'm going to die...' (Genesis 25:32). The text should be taken quite literally. Esau was frightened everyday lest he would meet death while out hunting. Therefore, if an expert like Esau both knew about and was scared of the real and present danger, how could a Jew place him/her-self in this kind of situation when the only impetus for it is desire!?"

Rabbi Landau's point, based on biblical narrative, should not be taken lightly. If even Esau was constantly aware of the potential and mortal danger, certainly any less proficiency than "expert" would demand a only severe and legitimate need to permit such a potentially harmful activity. At least according to the Jewish values that Rabbi Landau espoused.

And I think this ruling is useful in the conversation about Jews and guns. Why? Rabbi Landau articulated, through the prism of Torah values as he interprets them, that in the absence of a real-and-present need, some activities are too explicitly against some of our core values, like preservation of life, safety and the inherent holiness in all of God's creation. For a Jew to engage in them would be a violation of not only the Torah, but decency.

His position and arguments cause me to reflect on our current reality in several tangible ways:

Unnecessary Danger

There are, of course, times when we must (are obligated) insert ourselves into dangerous situations, and with weapons. We must also be well prepared for such events. Sometimes it is for a profession. Sometimes, sadly, war. Other times we must be ready and willing to protect the public. But what about using and owning tools explicitly created for death in voluntary and recreational situations? What does Rabbi Landau offer us in answering that question for Jews interested in a perspective based in Torah?

Having guns is dangerous for those who own them as well as those who are around them. Nobody can argue with that. Sure, experts are safer. Then let's require our gun users/owners (i.e, those who need to have guns) to be actual experts. That includes proficiency in not only the wielding of the weapon, but also its safe storage. (This article is a thorough and important summary of the known and scientifically proven dangers of home-gun ownership.)

Jews possessing guns for hunting? For just firing at the range for sport? Gun collecting? All of these create potent situations of danger and for no useful and life-affirming reason that can't be accomplished through another activity. Accidents with children/adults and guns are all too common and they can be prevented (see above article). But until safety is ensured, I cannot find a Jewish ethical justification for gun ownership that doesn't rely on food, clothing and/or self-defense.

I know there are plenty of hobbies out there that are fairly dangerous. I also think it is quite silly to compare bungy-jumping to shooting guns. But, theoretically, going to a gun range, renting a gun, firing it, and then going home is pretty benign. A safe gun range is just that -- safe -- statistics show. The guns don't need to go back to homes where there are children or other vulnerable people in harm's way. It is when guns leave the range that I am extremely wary and would like assurances that those who house them will be vetted and regularly tested in gun-storage safety. (Again, see the article link above.)

Also, Rabbi Landau's principle of an act, which may not be explicitly forbidden based on clear legal principles, but, nevertheless, holding that it is still something we ought not do, influences me. There is something about firing a gun (which I have done) for recreation that rubs me the wrong way. Guns equal violence. My advice: find something else to do. Honestly. We live in a society in which the glorification and celebration of gun violence is ubiquitous. It has to end. It is a significant piece of the puzzle. Shooting guns for the sole reason of a rush, a game, a fun time, group bonding... If a Jew asked me if it is permissible, I would say no. To what end? Guns, really? I just don't see how an object that has been -- and is still -- wielded for so much violence and death can be used as a tool for pleasure without sending all the wrong messages and creating needless potential for harm. Shooting guns at a range to become an expert and potentially be able to save a life? If that is the goal I think it is different, and permitted. Even laudable.

This isn't to say that I think all possible dangerous activities are problematic. I know there are risks in countless activities that build character, create happiness and foster group development. They are all very much life-affirming activities. It isn't the ends that I stand against, but the particular means by which we achieve the ends. In this case, guns. As a rabbi writing for those who live their lives with the Torah as a guidepost, know that I do not advocate Jewish gun owners simply giving up their weapons. I do, however, advocate keeping them in the hands of those expertly trained to a) use them, b) store them safely and c) use them only when there is a clear and necessary purpose.

Let's all continue to pray for all those in need of comfort. Let's unite in building a safer world. Let's do this together, one sensible decision at a time.