I gave a synagogue talk a few weeks ago and was asked by a member of the audience why Jews seem to be so averse to guns and in favor of gun control. I gave a quick and I thought not bad answer: Jews have no real cultural history of hunting, and, with some notable historical exceptions, have had an ambivalent relationship with military service.
The laws of kashrut pretty much assured that Jews, even those living in rural areas, didn’t do much hunting. Kosher-keeping Jews can’t eat an animal that isn’t slaughtered according to kashrut. As for hunting for sheer sport, the rabbis put a kibosh on that. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (18th century) wrote that killing an animal in order to satisfy “the enjoyable use of [a person's] time” is “sheer cruelty.” As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains, Landau’s response has long been considered the “normative Jewish position on hunting.”
Telushkin also suggests that the Jewish aversion to hunting is a matter of sympathy and transference, and quotes Heine: “My ancestors did not belong to the hunters as much as to the hunted.”
As for military service, Jews have a long and proud history as soldiers, going back to biblical times and including service in the armies of wahtever country they happened to be living in. Don’t get a Jewish war vet started on the idea that Jews don’t fight. And Israel has proven that when it comes to defending themselves, Jews take a back seat to no one.
But the Jewish relationship with the military has always been ambivalent. Many of the immigrants who fled Russia and the east in the 20th century did so to escape forced conscription for terms of two decades and more. The military could also be a hotbed of anti-Semitism, as Dreyfus learned so memorably. Through much of the last century Jews in the U.S. military academies spoke of their struggles for acceptance; those are the kinds of stories today’s adult Jews grew up on.
Put the two together and you don’t get a very hospitable climate for raising gun lovers.
They sum up their arguments thus:
Our research identifies ten reasons why these Jews feel the way they do about self defense in general, firearms specifically and your own right to keep and bear arms.
The adamantly anti-gun-rights Jews are bowing to:
1. A desire for utopian moral purity
2. A disproportional incidence of hoplophobia
3. A quest for power through victimization of peers
4. A utopian delusion that if guns would just “go away,”
crime would end and the world would be a peaceful safe place
5. Self hatred and a wish to be helpless, acting out guilt-based
behavioral problems that develop in childhood
6. The Ostrich Syndrome
7. Garden-variety hypocrisy
8. Adulterated religion — Jews In Name Only (JINOs)
9. Feel-good sophistry
10. Abject fear that yields irrational behavior
(Hoplophobia, I learned from the paper, is an irrational fear of guns [as opposed to ballistophobia, or fear of being shot].)
The authors, needless to say, don’t appear to be very proud of their fellow Jews. An inability to face reality, they suggest, has tempted Jews to embrace the words of Isaiah: “they shall beat their spears into pruning hooks.” The authors much prefer Talmud, Berakoth 58b: “If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.”
The paper isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, but it’s interesting reading.
UPDATE: Two other things occur to me: The Jewish aversion to guns, like so many of the behaviors Jews claim for themselves, comes out of a desire to distinguish ourselves from the gentiles. Kashrut, for all its biblical justification, is clearly a system for marking a boundary between us and them. It’s also a template for folk markers to come: There is no good reason why Jews don’t bring flowers to a funeral, but its assocaition as a gentile custom probably kept it from gaining a foothold among us. Hunting too falls under the category of goyishe naches; that is; what they do. In Arthur Szyk’s famous protrayal of the Haggadah’s Four Sons, the wicked son wears hunting gear.
I also don’t think Bendory and Korwin account for how much the sanctity of private gun ownership is a very American phenomenon, and a fairly recent one at that, as Jill Lepore demonstrated convincingly in the New Yorker. Instead of wondering why so many Jews remain so supportive of gun control, you might wonder why the zeal for gun ownership has taken on the sort of passion and defensiveness usually associated with religion.