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In September 2022, the New York State Jewish Gun Club in Rockland County sued Governor Kathy Hochul challenging a law banning concealed guns in places of worship. The suit calls attention to the club itself: Who knew there were Jewish gun clubs?
Ma Nishtana a “Jewish” gun club? In addition to advocating for gun rights, members strive to be “a club that is welcoming and supportive.” Besides describing how members work together to become more proficient in firearms and enjoy the benefits of gun ownership, the club’s website advertises an online Torah lecture on individual liberties as God-given rights.
Why does it matter?
It should go without saying that Jews can and should defend themselves in any society in which they recognize the need to do so. Jews who seek proficiency in firearms can join non-denominational gun clubs, as we might assume many still do. Yet, what is particularly interesting about Jewish gun clubs is that they see their gun ownership as a component of their Jewish identities. This is new.
Weapons have long been the subject of rabbinic debate:
A man may neither go out on Shabbat with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with an alla, nor with a spear. And if he unwittingly went out with one of these weapons to the public domain he is liable to bring a sin-offering [for carrying in the public domain]. Rabbi Eliezer says: These weapons are ornaments for him; just as a man is permitted to go out into the public domain with other ornaments, he is permitted to go out with weapons. And the Rabbanan say: They are nothing other than reprehensible and in the future they will be eliminated, as it is written: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore (Mishna Shabbat 6:4)
The halakha follows the opinion of the Rabbanan (Shulhan Arukh O.H. 301:7). Weapons are not ornaments. The gun as means to valorize the individual and his liberties defies classical Jewish self-understanding. A Jew should not need a weapon for anything other than its utility. A weapon is not a symbol of independence. If anything, it is the opposite; it is something “reprehensible.” How might such changes to Jewish self-understanding be explained?
While we might look to assimilation into American society with its cowboys, superheroes, and secret-agents, twentieth century developments in Jewish thought might also provide some insight. Stated simply, “Which came first, the individual or the community?” For much of our history, a Jewish self-conception required seeing oneself in the context of others: “Do not separate yourself from the congregation” (Avot 2:4). Yet, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith” begins with Adam I and II each alone as embodiments of the human struggle to be what God commanded them to be. Only after delineating the features of Adam I and Adam II as individuals does the Rav proceed to examine the type of community each one creates, namely the community of majesty and the community of faith. Like both Hobbes and Rousseau, “The Lonely Man of Faith” presents society as a second step in human development and self-perception. While man was certainly created alone, the Mishna does not derive individual rights and social contracts from this origin. It sees instead obligation:
Therefore, Adam the first man was created alone, to teach you that with regard to anyone who destroys one soul, the verse ascribes him blame as if he destroyed an entire world, as Adam was one person, from whom the population of an entire world came forth (Sanhedrin 4:5).
We are each born within the context of family and, if we are fortunate, of community. We come from somewhere. The Jew comes from within a masora that links us all to Sinai and thereby to one another. To imagine man alone within himself removes him from those critical bonds. It prioritizes the cognitive over the social parts of our identities. Such a move was not at all obvious, and it is worthy of a question.
For a community immersed in halakha, the absence of questions surrounding Jewish gun clubs is particularly striking. Whatever the Jewish view on the Constitution’s Second Amendment, Jewish law does not contain any equivalent right. While many Jewish organizations devoted to other issues publicize their rabbinic advisory boards, the New York State Jewish Gun Club does not – not even a boilerplate disclaimer to consult your LOR. Gun-ownership has significant halakhic ramifications with potentially life and death consequences. If we regularly ask our revered poskim about Hilkhot Shabbat, should we not ask questions about this arena of halakha?
What questions remain?
What distinct forms might a Jewish gun club take in the future that would reflect Jewish life and ritual?
As Jews wade into constitutional debates in America, can we expect similar Jewish clubs on the other side of this issue?
How might a modern Jewish philosophy which begins from Avraham and Sarah’s family differ from one that begins with Adam?
Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.