On Using Lions When Dogs Will Do: A Sermon for Sukkot Shabbat
by Rabbi Heather Miller
“Are you sure you’ve never shot a gun before?” He said to me.
“Just Nintendo Duck Hunt.” I replied.
A month ago, as part of my training as an LA Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commissioner, I engaged in a training using a MILO Simulator engaging as if I were a Sheriff’s deputy responding to a call. I used a real Smith and Wesson Military and Police handgun modified to shoot lasers instead of bullets.
I was first given target practice shooting inflatable balloons, and then was faced with video simulated situations such as responding to a suicidal veteran and a school shooting. The simulator is meant to gauge what I would do. Throughout the experience, I asked myself: When would I discharge my weapon? That is, when would I determine when it is alright to fire— ethically, and based upon LASD policy.
These questions weighed heavy on my mind because the stakes are high in these situations. Deputies are always trained to fire at the vital areas like the head or heart, never in the extremities. So, one has to assume that deciding to fire is deciding to end life.
And we all known that there is a strong Jewish value on life. It is one the highest values possible. As Jews celebrate life at every turn, honoring every milestone in a person’s life: birth, the first haircut, coming of age, marriage, retirement. We remember the precious lives lost in our family or our family of choice every year on their yahrzeit. We remember the ancient rabbis slaughtered, the martyrs of Israel in the medieval times, the victims of the Holocaust. We toast to life l’chayim every time we raise a glass. Our sacred literature codifies the preciousness of human life.
It was perhaps best articulated in the Babylonian Talmud. Wisdom from 1500 years ago says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף לז:א
לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא.
“For this reason, one individual was created first, to teach that anyone who causes one life to be lost from Israel it is as if they have destroyed the entire world. And anyone who saves one life from Israel- it is as if they have preserved an entire world.”1
And, so, I have been thinking a LOT about weapons these days. What are the ethics of using them? How safe do they actually make a person or society at large?
I have thought about these questions before because I am a woman, and as a woman, we are conditioned to be on the defense all the time: when walking to our cars late at night, when entering a public restroom, when in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Guns and other weapons like mace and pocket knifes are marketed to women, in designer colors like pink or purple or disguised as lipstick cases or makeup compacts. They are available and are options for personal safety.
Being a woman sometimes is like sitting in a sukkah. In a fragile structure this evening, in the darkness, and we feel vulnerable. Exposed to the elements. We have all felt vulnerable.
And the natural response it to seek protection.
What are the limits of the individual seeking protection for themselves or their family relative to the risk it creates to the community? Because even as weapons are meant to increase safety, they also have the power to create gravely dangerous situations.
This question, as you might imagine, has been debated throughout the centuries in Jewish texts.
Five hundred years ago, the Shulchan Aruch told us that we are allowed to have a wild dog guard our property as long as that dog is chained with a metal chain. This way the bark could be heard without imposing undue risk to a blameless community member walking by.
An exception was made for those who live out in the countryside. They were allowed to have a wild dog to be unchained on their premises at night.2 This assumes that isolation and night time makes one more vulnerable than usual, and that the risk to the surrounding community was lower as it was not as heavily populated.
But even as one is permitted to have a wild dog guard their home, there are limits to the amount of protection we are allowed to have. There is a prohibition on acquiring a lion to guard our home when a dog would do. Why is this?
The Sages in the Mishnah believe that even the act of simply having a wolf, lion, bear, leopard, panther, or snake automatically makes their owner liable were something bad to happen because each of these animals is considered mu’ad- each of these animals are known as dangerous by nature. Simply having them is deemed too great a liability for the community even as they would provide protection for the individual. Therefore, they should be forbidden to have at all.3
Is it ethical to carry a pink or purple handgun in our purses when a canister of mace might do? I’m sure it depends upon if one lives in the city or countryside, and other factors. The answer is not entirely clear.
But, what is clear is that children as young as toddlers have seen these kinds of weapons, taken them from their mothers’ purses and shot and killed their mothers, their siblings, or themselves. Are guns like lions? Are they mu’ad, and therefore so risky that they should be outlawed outright? Or are they like wild dogs such that they be restricted and used responsibly?
Even if we assume weapons are not mu’ad, that is dangerous by nature, if we are among those people who believe firearms can be contained and used properly, the rabbis raise the question of accessibility. They ask who these weapons can be sold to, and they place clear limitations on the transactions.
Rabbis believe that there are two kinds of people— those who value life, and those who are like idol worshippers, that is, they worship death.
The Rabbis of the Talmud in a tractate on Idol Worship (Avodah Zarah), state:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף טו
אין מוכרין להם לא זיין ולא כלי זיין, ואין משחיזין להן את הזיין…
“One should not sell idolaters either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one grind any weapon for them.” 4
From this we can see that we, as a society have a responsibility to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who don’t value life. Plain and simple.
A thousand years ago Maimonides states in his tractate on Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 12:12:
רמב”ם הלכות רוצח ושמירת הנפש יב:יב אסור למכור לגוים כל כלי המלחמה ואין משחיזין להם את הזיין ואין מוכרין להן לא סכין ולא קולרין ולא כבלים …ולא דובים ואריות ולא כל דבר שיש בו נזק לרבים אבל מוכרין להן תריסין שאינן אלא להגן.
“One may not sell these people weapons, and one may not sharpen their weapons and one may not sell them, knives, manacles, chains,… and not bears, lions, or any object which can damage the public. But we do sell them shields which are only for defense.”5
To whom does this apply today? Maimonides is suggesting that there are limits that the community should impose upon the distribution of weapons. Defensive shields that protect life and the like are permissible, but those who value death should not be permitted to acquire weapons of death. Many would call this common sense gun legislation today. But, how can we decipher who is a life-preserver or an idol worshipper of death? How do we know? What limits are reasonable, fair, prudent and protective?
There is ample public debate about these very issues in the media today. So, what do you think? Where are the lines? What are the issues and what is prudent? How can we decipher a life preserver, a seeker of personal protection versus a death worshipper?
The text associated with this time of year is Ecclesiastes which famously says that there is a time for every purpose under heaven: A time to live a time to die, a time to plant a time to sow a time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. So what time is this?
And, how do we see this issue this week— both when we are feeling particularly vulnerable as we are gathering with only the barest of structures sheltering us, and also when we have witnessed this week the bloodiest mass shooting on American soil in modern American history in Las Vegas? How do we balance these competing sets of values?
Or maybe instead of guessing who will use these weapons properly, the answer is that these items are simply too dangerous to have at all.
Maybe the answer is that there was a time for the second amendment. A revolutionary war era musket that takes a full minute to load one musket ball. That is a lot different than a rapid fire automatic assault rifle that shoots one round per second. Perhaps this is the time for us to honor the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of the world perfected:
ישעיהו פרק ב:ד
ושפט בין הגוים והוכיח לעמים רבים וכתתו חרבותם לאתים וחניתותיהם למזמרות לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה:
“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.”6
What time is it? Time to consider the question again. Please make your voice heard wherever you stand on this issue. Our beloved BCC member Jerry Nodiff asked us to provide cards for people to use to voice your thoughts, concerns, and hopes to legislators. Rather than tell you what to say, please take some time now to consider what you would like to voice. The time to speak is now. May we do so with wisdom, and may we encourage our leaders towards justice.
1. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a:
2. Choshen Mishpat 409:3
3. Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4
4. Avodah Zarah 15b
5. Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 12:12
6. Isaiah 2
7. Material for this sermon sourced largely from: https://lookaside.fbsbx.com/file/rabbinical-assembly-gun-violence-source-sheet%20copy.pdf?token=AWwmA6RH9HThhgr49J8WE2-wQol47FHQPGjGNABiq_KP3JL_udPtoXZCNFhiU9yYQZ8VB239Ilj_D12uvf4aYyFQLvWZR3uv1uxM8uhp-Nh3qOEUxljf6BJf2-1q46Ft7-F5LABw-22Ctq47SqkMeYZ- and http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/119539/what-judaism-says-about-weapons