Man pointing gun

The gun control argument is debated everywhere and goes nowhere. This is because the wrong issue is being debated. There is something missing from the argument when we get into poring over correlations between reduced gun ownership and fatalities. America has always been about an idea, about a vision, “the Almost Chosen People” as Lincoln called this nation.

We need to start out with our dream of an ideal society and explore its underlying values and work backwards. Woe betide a nation who finds no gap between its horizon and its current reality.

Such a nation may be, but it will never become. And it may well go backwards. There should always be a difference between the is and the ought, and as we move the is forwards towards the ought, we should move the ought further on the horizon as well.

It is plausible to argue that if the intrinsic value of human life is taken for granted in the Western world, it was Judaism that exported this value to the West.[1] A life-embracing culture was not common in the ancient world.

The Hebrew Bible expresses this idea in many ways. One of them is the idea of impurity. Purity (tahara) in the Torah means spiritual and moral fitness and life. Impurity (tumah) means a loss of that state,[2] a blockage from purity or clarity. In Hebrew, there is a linguistic connection between the words “impurity” and “thirst”, indicating that impurity is a spiritual thirst.

The Bible’s classic source of impurity is a dead corpse. There is no greater spiritual loss than death, because the soul is then separated from the body, and the body then becomes a raw material object. The body, now merely the outer casting of the soul, is impure. All other forms of impurity draw from the death idea in some way. As Rabbi Norman Lamm[3] points out: “The other kinds of impurity imply, indirectly, the suggestion of death, even if only the loss of potential life. … The leper … includes the withering and dying of the limbs… the Rabbis taught that a leper is considered as if he were dead… [So too] semen … is the loss of potential life… A nidah … loses an unfertilized ovum … a whisper of death.”

This is but one of the ways in which Judaism became a system of values dedicated to life. What Judaism adds to this is that one has an absolute obligation to try and save another’s life;[4] it is part of our urge towards the horizon of purity. One may break any commandment but the three cardinal ones (idolatry, adultery/incest, and murder) to save anyone’s life, including and especially one’s own. One may break into a pharmacy and steal medicine if need be, just as one may send ten or a hundred people to break the Sabbath when only one person is needed, just in case another will be a little faster. Almost all values yield gracefully in the face of the meta-principle of saving a life. One is even required, as a bystander, to spend money in order to save someone else’s life.[5]

In my mind, all of this should be fairly obvious to all of mankind. It isn’t. In most of the United States, there is no obligation to help someone in danger. Not only that but most places do not have “Good Samaritan” laws, which would protect bystanders who did try to help from damage claims thereafter. If you are in California, you may want to remember that Lisa Torti was convicted in 2009 of worsening the injuries of Alexandra Van Horn while dragging her from a wrecked car,[6] the presumption being that she was negligent or worse in the way she did this. Only emergency medical care provided by a health-care worker is protected and it took the civilized California until 1980 to get even that in place.[7] Of course, California does not require that any citizen come to the aid of another.

California is no exception. Alabama restricts its protection to help with cardiac arrest;[8] Oklahoma allows only CPR or controlling bleeding.[9] Vermont, Minnesota and Rhode Island are the only states that have statutes requiring citizens to “give reasonable assistance” to those exposed to “grave physical harm”.[10] But the laws have never been used to prosecute anyone. Elsewhere, you can let a boy place his hand in your machinery, and whistle away[11] or hide an overdosed person in your basement and allow them to die.[12] Welcome to America![13]

We saw this in action when 58-year-old Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York’s Times Square Station in December, 2012 and run over by the Q train (and nicely photographed by a bystander[14]). No one watching was under any legal requirement to act. No one did. Some of us may remember the 38 people[15] who ignored Kitty Genovese’s screams for help when she was stabbed in the Kew Gardens section of New York City in 1963. As she lay bleeding, the attacker returned and finished the job off.

For more than two hours on a dark Saturday night in October 2009, as many as 20 people watched or took part as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a Richmond high school homecoming dance. Witnesses took photos. Others laughed. More people came to see, and some actually participated. Not a single one called for the police. But, no one who watched – some of them for two hours – committed a crime. Even if they had cheered the rapists on, they would not have been guilty of any crime.[16]

We can blame the moral numbing of big-city life – its vanishing sense of community, the fear of “getting involved” (sometimes out of fear of retaliation), the idea that snitching is a bad thing, or the bystander effect where the larger the number of people involved in a situation, the less people get involved.

But we can also take a hard look at our values. In France, nine photographers were investigated for failing to take reasonable steps to rescue Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed in Paris.[17] That wouldn’t happen in New York.

Jewish law not only demands that one get involved when one sees a person dying on the street, but requires active bystander involvement to avoid any future danger to someone. Maimonides writes that if one is not capable of acting oneself, one has to hire someone else to do the job.[18]

Let’s say one knew a kid down the block who was plotting violent revenge on a school-mate. If you thought you had a fighting chance of talking the kid out of it, you would have a responsibility to give it a shot.[19]

Judaism does not demand all of this because it requires heroes. It does so because it values life, and it wants to communicate that value again and again, until it is ingrained deeply in our spiritual psyche. It is noble to die as a Jew under certain circumstances, but the Torah says that it is greater to live as a Jew. “And you should live by them (the commandments),” says the Torah[20] — not die by them. Jewish law is clear: put a gun to my head and demand that I transgress or die; I must transgress and stay alive.[21]

Not only that, but my life comes before anyone else’s. A famous Talmudic example tells of two people walking in a desert; one has a bottle of water, the other one does not.[22] Jewish law mandates that the bottle-owner drink the entire bottle himself, if this will get him to safety. Sharing his water may be noble, but it is against God’s wishes if all it does is delay the death of both of them. The bottle-owner should drink the water himself, not because he is selfish, but because that is what God wants him to do.[23]

See how these values turn. I am obliged to drink my water and watch the painful death of my neighbor. But I am also obliged to go more than the extra mile to save his life if it is not at the expense of my own. No surprise that such an approach would not countenance hunting game. Killing animals for fun does enormous violence to the very sensitivities we are trying to cultivate here.

Let’s dig a bit deeper. What about using violence to save myself or another? What about firearms?
You are sleeping in your house. You awaken to find a burglar breaking in. The thief may be violent; you don’t know. Jewish law says that you should presume that he will murder if cornered and that you should draw your gun and shoot at the burglar based on this mere presumption. Shoot him in the legs, if you can (and if you can, then killing him makes you a murderer). But, if you have to kill him, don’t hesitate.[24]

What about a bystander? You (or Bernard Goetz) witness Al Capone chasing a hapless victim down Main Street intent on killing him. Judaism requires you to shoot (and kill if need be) Al Capone.[25] The stranger gets no less help from you than you’d give to protect yourself.

What does all that tell me about the right to bear arms? It says that I am entitled to look after my life but I have to go very far in looking after the lives of others as well. It says that if you live in a lawless or a dangerous society where you may need to be armed, go buy a gun. And if you don’t, and spreading guns will inevitably mean that some madman will go on a shooting spree, then ban the damned things.

In Ethics of Our Fathers,[26] the Sages say, “Pray for the wellbeing of government, for if not for fear of it, people would swallow each other whole”[27] and the strongest would prevail.[28] Judaism may have a utopian vision, but it has no illusions about the almost endless capacity for at least some of our brethren to be nasty and cruel. They were practical too, as many of the statements above portray. But they took a much broader values approach to not only regulate but to create an environment of change in society.

So much ink has been spilled on arguing whether mass killings would be avoided by gun control, whether the 32,300 Americans that get killed (on average) by guns on an annual basis would be reduced this way.[29] But how much effort is being spent in ensuring that we have a culture of life, where we frame our thinking in the context of our broader values?

The truth is that violent crime in the USA is at an all time low. In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates were even lower.[30] But all that tells me is that America has gone back to a rate which at that time was considered totally unacceptable. But then it got worse… and worse; until now, when we rejoice in the old unacceptable. This is pitiful! In the early 1980s, almost half of Americans were “afraid to walk alone at night” in their own neighborhoods; now only one-third feel this way.[31] Only? One third is a disastrous number! How did we ever get used to such a thing? The same with ownership of guns. We laud the drop in ownership from about 50% of the population to one third. Whoopee!![32]

The USA far outdoes the rest of the world when it comes to mass shootings. In fact, 15 of the 25 worst shootings in the last 50 years took place in the United States. The Sandy Hook Elementary School killing of 18 children and 9 adults is but one dramatic example. In second place is Finland, with two entries. You have to go to Estonia and Mexico – excluded from comparison studies[33]– to begin to get comparisons with the U.S. Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with guns.[34] In the wrong moral climate, more guns mean more murders.[35]

In Israel, where I live, while we are not free of violence, we are almost never subject to the kind of mass shootings that take place in America. But that didn’t just happen. We have provided a high threshold for procuring a gun license, which includes strenuous background checks. You have to have a reason to have a gun, and that reason involves being in danger.[36]

Israel is a place of wars and macho people. Men will yell at each other over trivialities in true Middle Eastern fashion. But, the society managed to introduce a sense of boundaries because of the millennia of Jewish sensitivity to the value of life. There is a sense that it is brothers arguing, and you don’t kill your brother, even if you have some choice things to tell him.

Israel gets it right in this case, (though it is not exemplary). I believe we should stop the gun debate and start talking values. Let’s get to work on our Good Samaritan laws, on deepening our appreciation of life in general. America is moved by good people. One study indicated that rescuer deaths outnumber deaths from non-rescue by approximately 70:1.[37] Let’s see what we can build on from there.


[1] See

[2] Rabbi Elijah of Vilna on the, Tikunei Zohar 41.

[3] Norman Lamm – A Hedge of Roses, pg. 84.

[4] “Don’t stand idly by [when witnessing the spilling of] your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:15).

[5] Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 73a, though R. Asher, Sanhedrin 8:1 says that, if the victim has money, he must repay this.

[6] In the case of Alexandra Van Horn v. Lisa Torti, Torti was convicted of rendering Van Horn a paraplegic. The court found that Torti wasn’t protected from legal action under California’s current Good Samaritan laws.

[7] Those laws were set in place in 1980, when the state legislature enacted Health and Safety Code 1799.102, which provides that “no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”

[5] Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 73a, though R. Asher, Sanhedrin 8:1 says that, if the victim has money, he must repay this.

[6] In the case of Alexandra Van Horn v. Lisa Torti, Torti was convicted of rendering Van Horn a paraplegic. The court found that Torti wasn’t protected from legal action under California’s current Good Samaritan laws.

[7] Those laws were set in place in 1980, when the state legislature enacted Health and Safety Code 1799.102, which provides that “no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”

[8] The Code of Alabama (Section 6-5-332) restricts protection to trained rescuers or employees of the public education system, unless the victim is suffering a cardiac arrest.

[9] Oklahoma’s Good Samaritan Act.

[10] Unless doing so would be dangerous In Minnesota and Rhode Island, a violation of the statute is a petty misdemeanor. In Vermont, a violation carries a fine of no more than $100 and no jail time.

[11] In an 1898 case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously held that after an eight year-old boy negligently placed his hand in the defendant’s machinery, the boy had no right to be rescued by the defendant. Beyond that, the trespassing boy could be held liable for damages to the defendant’s machine.

[12] In the 1907 case, People v. Beardsley, Beardsley’s mistress, Blanche Burns, passed out after overdosing on morphine. Rather than seek medical attention, Beardsley instead had a friend hide her in the basement, and Burns died a few hours later. Beardsley was tried and convicted of manslaughter for his negligence. However, his conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court of Michigan saying that Beardsley had no legal obligation to her.

[13] Jennifer L. Groninger does point out that: “Erosion of the rule has been substantial. For example, six decades ago, an apartment owner would not be liable for failure to protect or rescue a tenant from danger inflicted by a felon. Today, a landlord might face liability in such circumstances. Six decades ago, a psychiatrist would not be subject to liability for failure to protect or rescue a “foreseeable victim” from the potential conduct of the psychiatrist’s patient; today, he might.” (No Duty to Rescue: Can Americans Really Leave a Victim Lying in the Street? What Is Left of the American Rule, and Will It Survive Unabated?, 26 Pepp. L. Rev.353, 353-54 (1999).)

[14] The photographer claimed he was attempting to use his camera’s flash to alert the train operator.

[15] This figure is disputed. But there were at least 20 people who watched.

[16] Only if it can be shown that they aided and abetted in the commitment of the crime can they be charged on something.

[17] The photographers did not necessarily have a duty to go to the Mercedes and actually try to
move the injured victims from the car; however, under French law, the reasonable effort requirement imposes a duty to at least seek medical attention or call the police. See here for more details.

[18] Maimonides, Laws of Murder, Chapter 1, Law 17.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Leviticus 18 5: And you should keep my statutes and my laws which man shall do, and you should live by them; I am God.

[21] With the exception of the big three Idolatry, adultery and murder.

[22] The bottle is only enough to sustain one person to get to safety.

[23] Tractate Bava Metzia 62a, according to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva there, which is the law.

[24] Tractate Sanhedrin 72a as interpreted by Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 600.
Interestingly, Jewish law says that if the burglar turns out to be a parent, one may not shoot. Since one’s parent will not shoot a child, the child cannot say that he/she shot in self-defense. However, it was clear that the father was threatening his son/daughter, then the child can kill even a parent.

[25] Deuteronomy, 25:11- 12.

[26] Chap 3, Mishneh 2.

[27] One thousand, seven hundred years later, Thomas Hobbes said in his Leviathan that, if not for government, the life of man would be “nasty brutish and short”.

[28] Commentary of the Bartenura, on Ethics, ibid.

[29] The average is for the last twenty-four years. See the graph showing firearm deaths from 1980-2006. See page 5 here:

[30] FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.

[31] General Social Survey (GSS).

[32] General Social Survey (GSS). But when in October 2011, Gallup asked who kept a gun anywhere on one’s property, they got a 47% result, the highest since 1993. See also this poll here.



[35] States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths. One study found substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48). Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence (

[36] Even then, you have a 40% chance of being rejected and you have to get the license renewed every six months. Moreover, you don’t just go out and buy a gun from a store. You buy a gun which can be tracked and traced. See:

[37] David A. Hyman, Rescue Without Law: An Empirical Perspective on the Duty to Rescue, 84 Tex. L. Rev. 653, 657 (2006).

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