The Second Amendment and the Second Commandment: Being Responsible for Those Created in the Divine Image

A well known statement by the author and playwright Anton Chekhov maintains that if a gun is hanging on the wall in Act I it must be taken off and fired at some point by the end of the play.  In a way, one could say that the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which provides for the right of Americans to keep and bear arms, is like Chekhov's gun.   And that our country has reached the moment in which it takes its place center stage.

For some, the Second Amendment is a relic, speaking of militias and minutemen armed with muskets and gunpowder.  For others, the Second Amendment is nothing less than the enforcement of America's promise, the surrendering of ultimate sovereignty of those who govern to the people governed.   Still, in the wake of the devastating carnage left by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School a growing number of citizens demand action and charge the government to address the ubiquity of weapons capable of dealing mass death. Amid the tension within this vital conversation lies the greatness and the challenge of the United States. Among our deepest held principles is the commitment to the liberty of each individual within a nation whose very formation recognizes the necessity to band together in order to achieve the common good.  

From a Jewish perspective, however, I believe that while the Second Amendment provides an important expression of the right to self defense, it is the Second Commandment, forbidding the worship of any object, that reminds me that such a right must be exercised in a way that elevates, not denigrates the dignity and well-being of those created in G*d's image over all else.

The Jewish tradition impresses the infinite value of human life as an incalculable currency stamped with the image of G*d.  While in our public discourse we may hear similar words, in our country, "pro-life" often becomes code for one side of a particular issue, and the rhetoric of "God's presence or absence" in our social morality is often applied only to specific social causes such as gay marriage or maintaining the wall of Church and State. But less emphasized is the significance of the preciousness and fragility of human life, especially as it relates to what is at stake in making sure guns are taken seriously, owned responsibly and regulated sensibly.

Among our most resonant obligations are the admonitions in the holiness code of Leviticus that we not stand idly by the blood of a neighbor and that we not place a stumbling block before the blind. In other words, we cannot simply watch as people are actively being harmed and we cannot shirk responsibility for what happens when high capacity, high velocity weapons are made easily available to those who are likely to seek opportunities for violence.

The gun owners I know take very seriously the responsibility that goes with their weaponry, train diligently and take pains to make sure their charges are never misused.  However, this does not mean that the gun industry and gun enthusiasts always emphasize such responsibility over more atavistic appeals to the lethality of their products and virility of their users.

The weapon that was used by the shooter in Newtown -- the Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle -- was being sold on the website as a way to "renew one's man card" after such humiliations as being seen "carrying a handbag" or being unable to "face down a fifth grader."  As acutely unfunny as these ads become after a rampage like Newtown, they never should have passed muster under any measure of maintaining respect for either the power of firearms or the dignity of human beings.

Almost 2,000 years before the adoption of the Constitution, the Sages whose words are recorded in the Mishna dealt with these underlying issues. In the discussion of what a person is permitted to carry publicly on Shabbat two opinions are proffered regarding weapons. One allows weapons to be worn as a form of ornament or decoration.  The second, the majority opinion, forbids carrying a sword under such circumstances because, ultimately, we see weapons not as stylish accessories but as instruments whose purpose "makes them unpleasant." The prooftext for this assertion is the iconic vision from Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruninghooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

Ironically, this ruling is not applied to someone carrying a weapon on Shabbat who is doing so out of self-defense or on active duty as many must today in Israel.  The rabbis were not unrealistic about the need to deal with the world's threats and understood that they could not trade in all their swords for ploughshares just yet.  Still, they allowed the vivid prophetic dream of peace to color their ultimate assessment of the weapons in their midst as unpleasant necessities rather than instruments to be glorified.

This attitude can still be felt in modern Israeli society where there are plenty of guns, but also plenty of gun laws.  While the greater part of Israelis 18 years and older will serve in the armed forces and many, though not all, will qualify for gun ownership, very few would want or be able to collect the kind of firepower that have been part of the tragic stories that have unfolded in the all too many mass killings perpetrated in our country.  Israel has no Second Amendment (nor a Constitution per se), but despite restrictive laws and repeated mandatory licensing and registration, the opportunity to keep and bear arms is afforded to all those who qualify with less fear that access to weapons will lead to rampages by the citizenry or that strict regulation will lead to abuse by the government.  

As we react to the horrific aftermath of what was wrought in Newtown and struggle with the implications of the Second Amendment, there is room for debate about which weapons lend themselves to fostering self defense of life, liberty and property.  However, to be truly mindful of the Second Commandment we also must stop idolizing and glorifying any weapons as cultural ornaments and markers of identity.  They are instruments of serious purpose and lethal power that may be deemed necessary now, but we pray will one day be able to be beaten into ploughshares and pruninghooks.