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High Noon

If Jews want to influence the public conversation, they must heed the lesson of this week’s parasha—the one about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

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(Photocollage by Tablet Magazine; Charlton Heston photo: Wikimedia Commons; gun photo: Adams Guns via Wikimedia Commons)

As they read this week’s Torah portion, Jews the world over are likely to come across a particularly harsh lesson in divine reasoning. Instructing Moses about the eternal laws he’s to deliver to the Israelites, God commands a fearful symmetry between punishment and crime. The words he uses have become famous: “an eye for an eye,” the Lord insists, “a tooth for a tooth.”

Few biblical quotes, arguably, have been more maligned. Confronted with this wrathful standard in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye winces. “Very good,” he says. “That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” Similarly worded rejections are attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

It’s not hard to see why: All that eye poking and tooth pulling feels a tad primeval for us enlightened folk. We prefer to talk about cooperation and collaboration and compassion. And, for the most part, we’re the better for it. When we read biblical bits like this week’s abundance of laws, it’s tempting to ignore the lot of them; after all, how many of us have to worry about our bull goring a neighbor, a loved one becoming a sorceress, or other ancient concerns that have little to do with our modern lives?

But the ancient laws are more relevant to us than we imagine. If we observe their spirit rather than their letter, we stand to uncover an array of astonishingly progressive legislation: protecting the rights of animals and servants, defending the well being of women, and taking other measures to ensure a just and robust society. There’s grace here, and love and kindness, but all these come at a cost: Break the rules, we’re told, take advantage, and you’d better watch out for those eyes and teeth.

There’s much evidence to suggest that we could use such a shot of harshness. Everywhere, from American classrooms to American Idol, we see the culture of entitlement: Whether they can actually sing or dance or do math, Americans are certain that they can, ignoring signs to the contrary. In boardrooms and newsrooms and just about anywhere else, delusional souls seek fortune and fame, break the rules, and, all too often, get away with it. In both Wikileaks and the Tea Party, we see the hissing sort of disdain for authority that, at its most extreme, can result in fatalities. An eye for an eye is the antidote to all that; an eye for an eye reminds us, in the bluntest terms imaginable, that we are masters of our own fates, that our actions have consequences, and that rather than hiding in the thicket of excuses and justifications that is so much of our public discourse today we should take responsibility for our decisions and prepare to be judged for our deeds.

All this talk, I realize, sounds ominous. It is also terribly abstract. I have, then, a concrete proposal. American Jews today, I believe, should raise their voice for responsibility and accountability, a sorely needed moral move. And the best way to do this is to bear arms.

I am well aware that the previous sentence may sound—comment vous dites?—crazy. Allow me a few qualifications: I don’t think that Jews should own guns because they face clear, present, and particular dangers as citizens of the United States. Nor do I believe that Jews should turn to guns instead of putting their trust, as everybody else does, in the criminal justice system, nor that the solution to our tortured body politic, God forbid, lies in some sort of proactive paramilitary action. What I do mean is that American Jews—a group whose cosmology of saints includes those famous for opposing power (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel), those who mock power (Lenny Bruce, Jon Stewart), and those who’ve turned power into a harmless farce (Norman Mailer)—could use some locks, stocks, and barrels if they are to offer American society a vision as relevant to our times as those of Heschel and the other Jewish luminaries of the civil rights movement were to the 1950s and 1960s.

A personal anecdote might illustrate the point. I remember being 6 or 7 years old in Israel, playing with a toy gun, pointing it at my father and pretending to shoot. He looked at me, unsmiling. “Never,” he told me, his voice cold, “point a gun at something you don’t intend to kill.” My mind was reeling. I was just a boy, and it was just a game, but my innocuous play had been pierced by a sudden sense of reality, and I wasn’t sure what had happened.

A year later, when I shot my first real rifle, I understood. The kickback didn’t bother me much; what captivated me was the steely realization that the tool I now held in my hands gave me the power to take someone’s life, and that with such power—to quote my favorite political philosopher, Spider-Man’s uncle—came great responsibility. If I had the agency to kill, I thought, then I also had the agency to soothe and help and comfort. With my finger on the ultimate generator of consequences, I realized that I had the power to shape things, for better or for worse.

A few weeks ago, in Tuscon, another young man experienced a similar sentiment. Like me, he was a gun enthusiast, and if news reports about Jared Lee Loughner are to be believed, he, too, had given much thought to the strange tickling of omnipotence that comes with gun ownership. But unlike me, Loughner allegedly chose murder. Precisely why we may never know, but one possible reflection has to do with his creeping sense of powerlessness, an impotence that drove him to misunderstand Nietzsche and retreat into dreams and squeeze the trigger outside that Safeway on a Saturday morning. He’d spoken about his feelings of powerlessness in the YouTube videos and MySpace updates he left behind. Like so many Americans—supporters of Sarah Palin, fans of Julian Assange, contestants on televised talent shows—he was flummoxed by what he felt was the undue influence of menacing and shady elites. And rather than learn how to feel empowered, he grabbed a Glock and shot.

To many, the lesson to implement involves limiting access to firearms. This, I suspect, includes most of the American Jewish community, whose leading institutions all feature prominently on the National Rifle Association’s list of national organizations with anti-gun policies. But there is a different, far better answer: Rather than take away our guns—as an enthusiastic member of the NRA, I have a lot to say about the various perils of such a proposition—teach us how to handle them with care.

Imagine, then, instructors at summer camps or Hebrew schools or day schools ending their talks about Maimonides or tikkun olam by taking out a .22, passing it around the room, and asking each student to take a moment and reflect on the Talmudic edict that he who destroys a soul destroys the entire world while he who saves a life saves a world entire. With a .22 in hand, the saying becomes much more than a platitude; it becomes a way of life, a way of life devoted to contemplating the freedom we each have to act and the tragedy of choosing destruction over redemption.

This, I believe, is what empowerment is all about. It’s also what eye for an eye means: not wanton violence and blind vengeance, but a deep sense of responsibility that understands just how transient life is and just how careful we must be to preserve it.

Taking away, restricting, or limiting access to guns enforces the same logic of powerlessness at the heart of so many of our contemporary woes. I hope the Jewish community, so attuned to moral crises, might help change the acrimonious discussion about guns by making them a touchstone of personal responsibility rather than a banner of destruction.

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As a Jewish NRA member and handgun owner who engages in target shooting as a sport and recreation, I can only second Liel Leibovitz’s position, although in my view the logic of his exposition in this derasha doesn’t really hold together. Far too many Jews, whether from timidity, ignorance, or whatever, look askance at gun ownership and without any real knowledge condemn it as reflecting some grave moral or emotional defect. I’m glad to see some common sense on the subject for a change, not to mention arespectable philosophical justification.

JCarpenter says:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—-is it as much as punishment/revenge/penalty, to be meted out immediately, instituted in a social or legal code;
or is it a prophetic statement, akin to “those who live by the sword will [eventually in God’s just world, in His timing, “vengeance is Mine—I will repay”] die by the sword?
Americans pay every day for their historic violence; every generation has seen war since the colonies were established; violence threatens not just inner-cities but uptown/downtown/suburbs/small towns/and rural areas. We reap what we sow.
Common denominator: guns, yes—but also a perspective that force and violence, real or threatened, will bring about desired results instead of dialogue, co-operation, compromise.

Not going for it. What started out as a nice defense of a much abused passage in Torah turned into advocacy of a para-political position. If there was anything about guns to learn from the Tucson incident, it is that they should be discouraged, not encouraged. The more people possessing guns – no matter religion, race, or politics – the more likely that a gun will be used irresponsibly. On the other hand, it would be fitting if Jewish summer camps added some Torah lesson to the other activities. If they have target shooting or archery, by all means combine these activities with the teachings of the Rambam et al. But not the other way around. Don’t reduce the teachings of the Rambam by passing a .22 around, or even a kitchen knife. Or even a pen or text messaging device – which, as potential weapons, also demand responsibility. The words of the wise, and the wisdom of Torah, are empowering enough.
Anecdote: Intifada 1: Miluim; we were patrolling the outskirts of a village on foot. When we noticed some youths gathering tires and stones, we called it in to headquarters. Our orders were just to be there. The youths started throwing stones at us. We started throwing stones in return, and it became like a game – a little laughter on both sides. But we were ordered to stop – because soon the international media would be descending upon us. Stones continued to fly at us. Out of frustration I raised my M-16 and aimed it at someone who had just thrown a stone at me. He stood up and mocked me – and challenged me to fire. . . To this day, that one act of aiming a loaded rifle at another living being haunts me. . What if I had fired — even accidentally? [Moral: Sometimes we don’t need guns. We need other weapons. stone for a stone, word for a word, truth for a lie, that sort of thing.]

Fascinating. Thank you for writing this.

I’m a would-be ger, soon to convert to Judaism, and I didn’t grow up in a Jewish family. Moreover, my childhood was spent in a rural part of the southeast, where gun ownership, hunting, and fishing are part of life’s fabric. My father, though a hunter, disliked toy guns. If he saw me point a toy gun at a friend when playing “Cowboys and Indians,” “Cops and Robbers,” or some such game, he admonished me with the same stern words that Liel’s father used: “Never point a gun at something you don’t intend to kill.”

I took that to heart, whether toy or real. Killing, I realized, is a potent, difficult act. Knowing that other animals must die for me to eat meat, as an adult I became a strict vegetarian unless I take the life of an animal myself, butcher it, and prepare it. (Sometimes, I’ll eat meat if it was hunted or caught by a family member or close friend.) Now, in my early 30s, living in San Francisco, an artist and writer, my rifle, shotguns, and one .22 pistol are “back east,” locked in my father’s gun safe.

Like a lot of converts to Judaism, I take Jewish peoplehood/identity very seriously; Judaism is an important part of my life and “doing Jewish” (in the “spirit of the law” sense; I’m a Conservative Jew…or, rather, almost a Conservative Jew, mikveh pending) is a preoccupation; I write about it, think about it, and act on it every day.

How, then, do I reconcile gun ownership or, G-d forbid, hunting with my burgeoning Jewish identity? How do I feel about the prospect of one day being a Jewish father who… Well, what will it be? The Jew who owns guns that he is ashamed of – the “bad” Jew, the “oh, well, dig a little and you’ll see he’s really a goy” Jew – and that he hides from Jewish friends and family? Or the Jew who wrestles with the uneasy tensions of gun ownership, of the moral messiness of death and death dealing, and introduces his children to these potent, pertinent questions?


The Jews For the Preservation of Firearm Ownership have been protecting our Second Amendment freedom for quite some time now.
They have a lot of printed material and some hard-hitting videos available. It is time. It is time for all of us to understand that the constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights were written by people who truly understood the price of political freedom. It’s time we understand it, too. The Second Amendment protects our right to bear arms, and the Tenth Amendment protects the rights of individual states. We have to stand up for our personal and states rights so that we do not lose them entirely. Thank you for a great article!

A Levenson says:

What does the Tucson shooting, the product of an unbalanced mind
have to do with a rational decision to use or not use firearms?
Does actually handling a gun give you a sense of responcibility or simply knowledge of how to use it?

Arieh Lebowitz says:

Leil: See here – “N.R.A. Stymies Firearms Research, Scientists Say,” New York Times, Jan 25, 2011.
You opine that “American Jews today, I believe, should raise t…heir voice for responsibility and accountability, a sorely needed moral move. And the best way to do this is to bear arms.”
But your personal anecdote relates not to the American – and certainly not to the American Jewish – scene, but to something that happened when you were a young fellow in Israel. As anyone looking seriously at the issue of guns knows, every country has its own very distinct state of affairs regarding guns, gun ownership, violence resulting from gun ownership, etc.
I mean, it’s fine that you realized early on “that with such power—to quote my favorite political philosopher, Spider-Man’s uncle—came great responsibility.” I suspect that “American Jews” already know this, and don’t need a handgun in their apartment or home to “raise their voice for responsibility and accountability.” For whatever it’s worth, the overwhelming majority of calls for Jews to own handguns and be pro-gun ownership come not from those clamoring for American Jews to raise their voices for responsibility and accountability, but people who have a vague fear that “they might be coming to get us again” and that if only a lot of Jews in Germany, and then Poland, and eselwhere in Europe had guns at home, they would have been able to fend off the Holocaust.
Back to that article in The New York Times, studies “found, for example, having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.”
You may be a bit too young to remember, or been in another country when it was aired, but Archie Bunker, one of the central characters in the U.S. TV show “All In the Family” had a solution to airplane hijacking: give everyone entering am airplane a gun. …

Arieh Lebowitz says:

Should more American Jews know the basic operation of a gun, whether a rifle or a handgun? Sure, why not. But the USA is not Israel, needless to say, but perhaps it does need saying, and the place of firearms and their responsible use within the lives of Israelis – that is, the Israeli Jewish majority – is totally different than within the lives of American Jews. To put it simply, it sharply, you just don’t get it.
You ask us to imagine “instructors at [Jewish] summer camps or Hebrew schools or day schools ending their talks about Maimonides or tikkun olam by taking out a .22, passing it around the room, and asking each student to take a moment and reflect on the Talmudic edict that he who destroys a soul destroys the entire world while he who saves a life saves a world entire.” Fine, swell. And even teach them the basics of gun use. But you’re from another planet when you continue that “with a .22 in hand, the saying becomes much more than a platitude; it becomes a way of life, a way of life devoted to contemplating the freedom we each have to act and the tragedy of choosing destruction over redemption.” I can’t tell if that planet is Israel or NRAville, but it’s not the planet that the overwhelming majority of American Jews live in, or those who send their kids to Jewish summer camps or Hebrew schools or day schools want their families to live in. At any rate, knowing the deadly potential of a gun, even knowing how to use a gun, is not the same as “bearing arms,” as you put it. In the US today, there are already too many guns out there. A “deep sense of responsibility that understands just how transient life is and just how careful we must be to preserve it,” yes. More private gun ownership. No.

Richard Benari says:

Um, no.

This guy Liel Leibovitz is an Am-Haaretz, ignoranomous the way they don’t make it anymore. The Hebrew word תחת is not for, does not translate into punishment; the translation is instead. We are talking about Laws of Damages. If someone , Leibovitz , damaged your eye he would need to pay assessed damages also under Jewish American and Canadian Law. It is not the first time that Leibovitz demonstrated utter ignorance of Jewish Law and of plain Hebrew, invents theories and critisizes whoever Jewish is around. I think he should be booted out of your Magazine, i.e. if the Magazine wants to keep a proper reputation. The christians used the translation “for” just for anti-semitic purposes.

To Hungry Hyena. First: if you really wanted to convert you would have gotten rid of your name Chr..fer. Second, Judaism treated the question of cruelty to animals, many years ago, in the Gemara. I will only say, as Hillel said: Go learn. The subject is in the Tractate Bava Metziah, see also the commentaries. If your Rabbi can show you the right page (in Hebrew and Aramaic) you might be in the righs hands; otherwise you are anyway in the wrong hands. I am some 9000 miles from you to be able to teach you. Certainly , I am not going to bother teaching you as long as I have doubts about your sincerity to convert, Mr Christ..fer!

Liel proves himself completely ignorant of the commentary on this passage (i.e. a metaphor for monetary compensation); and therefore ignorant of Jewish tradition. This is what our civilization has been built on–not ancient texts themselves, but the educated consideration of these texts. Turning our attention to gun control is completely disingenuous. Our current legal system is based on vestiges of violent Christianity that ignore Jewish criticism of the Bible. Liel profanes the thought of Maimonides by somehow assuming Jewish tradition is relevant to violent action. I don’t know why anyone takes this guy seriously. Tablet: please find someone competent to deliver the weekly drash.

a concerned jew says:

Just a few comments. An eye for an eye, or Hammurabi’s code, was and is not followed literally under Jewish law. As under American law, if you injure someone, or take his property, you are obligated to reimburse him for his loss financially. Under Jewish law, an extra portion is added as a penalty. A more comprehensive discussion can be found in the Talmud.

Arming everyone would not be the horror it seems to be if everyone were as responsible and appreciated the value of human life as you do. Unfortunately, there are too many in society that do not similarly respects another’s life or rights.

I spent shabbos at the home of a woman who had been a nurse in a dialysis unit in Detroit. You would think that people coming for treatment in such a place would respect human life. But, one day, two patients were having an argument. One of them ended the argument by taking out his hi pistol and shooting the other.

We have gun laws to protect us against those in society who are irresponsible, who cannot be trusted, if you can come up with a plan for every American, for everyone on the planet, to respect the rights of others, I will support the fantasy which many call the second amendment. Until then, let’s keep the guns out of the hands of those who will use them on other people without caring about the impact on the other’s and on the victim’s family.- unfortunately, I may keep a gun out of your hands also, if giving up your gun ownership might save another’s person’s life. Live with it, so he or she can remain alive.

I have been taught that “an eye for an eye”, rather than a vengeful or harsh edict, was in fact an effort to mitigate violence. I.e. at that time, if you took a person’s eye, you lost both of yours, and so on. This was saying take ONLY an eye, or tooth, etc.

robert kern says:

this magazine for sure is either run by anti semites -or is some sort of CIA operation–an eye for an eye meant-if soneone steals a chicken -the government should not execute his entire family-remember this is like 3000 years ago

Dan Klein says:

@Robert Kern: are those the only two options?

To Dan,Robert, Don,Eli,concerned, and a few others: עין תחת עין etc., literaly means damages. The word תחת menas instead, in substitution, in compensation. In Laws of Punishment, there is no substitution, no compensation. I do not know what Hamurabi meant, nor what the CIA does. I know what the Hebrew words mean. The Rabbis did not need to attempt to invent new laws, nor did they need special interpretations. It is simply a plain, direct, uncomplicated, unburdensome translation of the word תחת, it is not a Medrash, nor “special tradition”. It is a translation. Am I clear? Or is there someone still skeptical?

Shmuel says:

Liel – you need to learn how to learn Torah. The Torah never meant that a punishment would be taking out the eye of the bad guy. this is Judaism 101. The Tablet really ought to make this sort of totally basic understanding is something a writer has here when writing on the Torah.

This really the “a-b-c’s” of Judaism.

Your readers deserve better.

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High Noon

If Jews want to influence the public conversation, they must heed the lesson of this week’s parasha—the one about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

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