An open letter to the President and Members of Congress:
December 20, 2012
We, the undersigned, are rabbis, educators and community leaders at Jewish day schools across the United States. Collectively, we are connected to 30 schools, enrolling more than 7,500 students.
We are moved to write to you by the heartbreaking tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. As far as we know, that tragedy was the work of a deranged young man whose sickness blinded him to the moral and ethical implications of his actions. But whatever his motives, the killer’s rampage was only possible because we as a society have made it so easy for people like him to obtain military-style guns and ammunition legally, cheaply and easily.
Many commentators have called this a political failure, which it may be, but we believe it is, first and foremost, a moral failure. The Torah teaches us that when we live in a community, we must actively work to prevent harm to others. Deuteronomy 22:8 tells us that if we build a new house, we must build a railing on the roof, lest someone fall off and get hurt – literally, “so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” The Talmud extends this notion to other dangerous things within our control, such as violent dogs, which must be kept on a chain lest they hurt someone (Bava Kamma 15b, 79b; Choshen Mishpat 409:3). Guns are no exception; indeed, the Talmud tells us that we must make every effort to ensure that we do not put dangerous weapons into the hands of would-be criminals (Avodah Zarah 15b).
The Talmud assigns responsibility for public safety to a community’s officials. Commenting on the passage in Deuteronomy 21:7, “And [the elders of the town] shall make this declaration: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done,’” the Mishnah asks, “Would it have occurred to us that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [the meaning of the declaration is] he didn’t come in contact with us and we sent him away without food, and we didn’t see him and send him away without an escort” (Sotah 46b). To be sure, when that sick young man in Connecticut picked up guns that had been legally obtained, the ensuing blood that was shed was on his hands. But it is also on our hands, because we allowed a murderer easy, legal access to weapons that are especially lethal. It is on our hands because we failed to build adequate fences around things that we knew were dangerous, as the Torah commands us.
We respect that the U.S. Constitution protects a citizen’s right to bear arms to defend against tyranny; indeed, the Torah commands us to defend ourselves against those who would kill us. For too long, however, we have equated protecting against would-be tyrants with virtually unfettered access to military-style guns and ammunition. The Shulchan Aruch, the great codification of Jewish law, reminds us that this equation is not correct. Rather, we must balance access to weapons against our obligation to protect lives: “And for every stumbling block that is a danger to someone’s life, there is a positive commandment to remove it and to destroy it from among us and to take good caution; as it says: ‘You shall guard your lives’ (Deuteronomy 4:9).”
In memory of the children, teachers and administrators murdered in Newtown, and in service to the thousands of children and teachers who are our daily responsibility, we beg you to take up immediate and definitive legislation that will erect meaningful fences around dangerous weapons that kill indiscriminately. It is up to you to undertake this ethical and moral imperative to remove and destroy these stumbling blocks, in order to fulfill the Torah’s instruction that we should bring no more bloodguilt on our houses.
View the letter to see all signers: Day School Leaders’ Open Letter on Gun Legislation