Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Joshua Levy of Teaneck is a member of the Golani Rifle & Pistol Club.

Armed self-defense is a value strongly supported in Jewish law, according to a statement issued last week by a local Jewish gun club, which is urging two of the largest Orthodox organizations in the country to reconsider their positions on gun control.

On July 16, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis in the United States, issued a statement recognizing the rights of private citizens to own weapons and engage in violence for self-defense, but also calling for the restriction of “easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition,” and denounced “recreational activities that desensitize participants … or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons….”

The RCA resolution came just over a year after the Orthodox Union issued a similar resolution citing its longtime commitment to “common sense gun safety legislation” and calling on U.S. senators to pass legislation to ensure “a safer and more secure American society.”

These statements ignore basic facts and “fail to recognize Judaism’s strong support for the value and practice of armed self-defense,” said a statement issued last week by the Golani Rifle & Pistol Club, a Jewish gun club with members throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but mostly in northern New Jersey.

The Golani Club wants to encourage all Jews to think about the best ways to protect their families and communities in accordance with Jewish law and with the awareness that Jews have suffered greatly throughout history because their enemies were better armed, said Joshua Levy of Teaneck, a Golani member who signed the statement. The club isn’t pushing for the RCA and OU to side with any particular pro-gun politicians, but it does hope that the organizations will reconsider their positions “to do what’s best to ensure the survival of Jewry and to follow the Torah,” he said.

“Discouraging gun ownership seems dangerous for Jews, who perhaps more than any other people have faced constant threats, large and small, through the ages,” Mr. Levy said. “The RCA’s discouragement of gun ownership and preparation for armed self-defense invites greater danger.”

According to Mr. Levy, Jewish gun-owners, like other Jews, are dedicated to their families and communities, cautious, and lovers of life, “taking reasonable precautions to preserve their own lives and the lives of those in their communities.” At a time when Jews face increasing danger around the world, the RCA and OU are sending the wrong message, he said

“Every Jew is capable of training themselves to protect their families and their community,” he said. “And in fact it’s very Jewish according to the Torah to protect your family and community. We’re required to preserve Jewish life and the lives of those around us.”

The Golani statement, which is posted as a PDF at, was signed by 12 rabbis from across the country, including Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, and Rabbi Ephraim Slepoy of Passaic, who teaches in a yeshiva that he declines to identify. Rabbi Simon told the Jewish Standard that he signed the letter because of his individual beliefs, and that it does not represent the views of Chabad locally or nationally. He declined further comment.

Rabbi Pruzansky pointed to the Jewish teaching of “Haba lehorgecha, hashkem l’horgo” – “Someone who comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” The rabbis certainly do not support the unlimited distribution of firearms, Rabbi Pruzansky said, agreeing with the ban on criminals and the mentally ill owning guns. But, he said, the directive to kill your enemy before he kills you “can only be done by someone who is armed and can defend himself.

“Jews have the right and halachic obligation to exercise the right of self-defense,” Rabbi Pruzansky said. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is by a good guy with a gun. That should be obvious.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the RCA’s executive committee, said only about 7 percent of the RCA’s 1,000-plus members voted in favor of the gun-control resolution. More than 800 abstained, he said. The RCA is a “big tent” that welcomes differing views, but the gun control resolution was drafted by a small committee with a heavy and disproportionate liberal tilt. It is therefore necessary “to set the record straight.

“Many people felt that the RCA statement was unnecessary, misplaced, and did not fully represent the Torah viewpoint on self-defense, nor even the majority opinion in America,” he said. “It is important to set the record straight and underscore how the Torah – and the realities of Jewish history – demand that the Jewish people exercise our right of self-defense vigorously, and certainly in accordance with the law.”

The Golani Club would like the RCA and OU to encourage sensible gun ownership and training, Mr. Levy said. Guns are tools, he added, and are used every day to preserve the peace. More often than not, they don’t even have to be fired to stop an attack.

“As a practical matter, there’s no better defense against an attacker than a gun,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that Mr. Levy advocates vigilantism, though. He expressed a deep appreciation and respect for police officers who risk their lives every day to protect people. But the police can’t be everywhere, he said, and people have an obligation to take all reasonable precautions to protect themselves and their families.

“Preparing ourselves for self-defense is the opposite of vigilantism,” he said. “Disarming ourselves puts us at the mercy of bad men who seek our harm. The Torah requires us to defend ourselves and we can’t defend ourselves unless we have adequate means of defending ourselves.”

OU policy positions are developed at the organization’s biennial conventions, where delegates from across the country propose and vote on resolutions. One such proposal more than a decade ago suggested the OU look at “common sense” gun regulation, said Nathan Diament, executive director for Public Policy for the OU.

“On a topic like this, there’s a diversity of opinion among rabbis,” Mr. Diament said, but he noted that there hasn’t been any other response to the resolution. The next OU convention will take place this December in Westchester, he said, and the process for submitting resolutions is open.

The RCA’s halachic rulings, such as declaring the ordination of women a violation of Jewish law and tradition, carry much greater weight than the organization’s political statements, Rabbi Pruzansky said. Still, he would rather the RCA support the “liberalization” of firearm carry laws for self-defense and as a crime deterrent than issue a blanket condemnation.

“Given the realities of Jewish life even today, that would have added the weight of the RCA’s opinion in the debate in a more productive manner,” he said.

The RCA respects the opinions of all of its members, said the organization’s president, Rabbi Leonard Matanky of Chicago, but despite objections from one of its senior members, the RCA now has no intention of reconsidering its statement.

“One of the wonderful things about our organization is we have members from a wide area of the Orthodox movement with various opinions. Members disagree,” he said.

Rabbi Matanky recognized that there are circumstances in which Jews are obligated to defend themselves, but, he said, there is no specific Jewish law that says a Jew must own a gun.

“Nor is there a law that says he cannot own a gun,” he said. “This is why there is room for debate and why it is appropriate under the circumstances.”

The Golani statement is a direct response to the RCA’s statement earlier this summer, but the Jewish community has been wrestling with the issue of gun control for years, and the question leads to very different answers outside the Orthodox world.

A week after the 2012 Newton, Conn., school shooting, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform leaders issued a joint statement calling for greater gun control. “Our worship of guns is a form of idolatry,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said then at a joint press conference with Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and the OU’s Mr. Diament.

The Religious Action Center has issued several resolutions calling for sensible gun control policies, including a 2012 statement in the wake of the Newton shooting calling for the renewal of the ban on assault rifles. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism also passed a resolution in 2012 calling on Congress and the president to support restrictions on assault rifles and high capacity magazines.

In the RAC’s 2012 statement, deputy director Rachel Laser cited the Talmudic teaching of “He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe.” “The loss of so many lives, including children, is not just devastating – it is unacceptable,” she said. “We call on members of Congress, the president and people committed to the well-being of all Americans to find shared values on gun control measures that will help ensure the safety of us all.”

The RAC website hosts a Gun Violence Prevention Resource Guide, which cites Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah. Rabbi Mosbacher’s father was shot to death in a bungled robbery. “A world ended that day,” Rabbi Mosbacher said in the Resource Guide. “And yet, the murder of my father, Lester Mosbacher, didn’t make it onto CNN. Neither Fox nor MSNBC broke into their regularly scheduled programming to cover the end of a world. In fact, most of the names of the tens of thousands of people whose lives are ended with a gun in this country each year are anonymous to us, unless we are the husband, the wife, the child, the grandchild, or the friend.”

Last year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of national Jewish communal organizations, issued a contentious resolution at its annual plenum in support of legislation to control the sale of certain firearms and boost background checks. The JCPA met with resistance from some of its member groups that wanted softer language than other member organizations demanded. In the end, the resolution also reaffirmed the right to bear arms and gun-owner rights, which several members wanted to remove in favor of harsher anti-gun language.

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