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The Case for Safety in the Synagogue

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The Case for Safety in the Synagogue

Many Jews feel that the best defense against anti-Semitic attacks is armed self-defense. December 22, 2022
Public safety
The Social Order

American Jews are feeling vulnerable. The 2018 Tree of Life and 2019 Poway Chabad house synagogue shootings; the Colleyville, Texas hostage standoff in January of this year; and arrests of those threatening to harm Jews in synagogues in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan in recent months contribute to this unease. Coupled with largely unpunished street violence against Jews in Brooklyn and social-media threats worsened by Kanye West’s anti-Semitic ravings, Jews have had to bolster security measures at houses of worship. While President Biden recently announced an interagency taskforce to combat anti-Semitism, and while the governor and mayor of New York, along with Senator Chuck Schumer, recently met Jewish leaders at New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue to announce a new Hate and Bias Prevention Unit, many Jews have recently decided that the only ones who can defend them are themselves. Increasing numbers of congregants are attending services while armed, often with the foreknowledge of the rabbi and the synagogue security committee.

Surprisingly, politicians in some heavily Jewish jurisdictions are trying to make these self-protection efforts illegal. A federal judge temporarily struck down a provision of New York’s gun law that makes it a felony for a person with a concealed-carry license to possess a firearm in places of worship, while Montgomery County, Maryland, recently passed a similar law. These laws not only limit an individual’s choice to bring a weapon to synagogue but also make it difficult for individuals bringing weapons to coordinate with the synagogue security committee. Board members of a synagogue allowing congregants to carry weapons in violation of the law could find themselves personally liable, and insurance policies might not cover anything that goes wrong in such circumstances.

These laws appear to be in line with the views of both the blue areas that pass them as well as most Jews: 77 percent of Jewish Americans want more restrictive gun laws. Yet these measures are in tension with the views of many other Jews about how best to protect synagogues from anti-Semitic assailants.

The laws are problematic from both a legal and a policy standpoint. Legally speaking, the laws appear to violate the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms. Indeed, the New York law was challenged on that basis, and the Maryland law may face a legal challenge as well. But the laws could also be subject to a First Amendment challenge, as they could be seen as an unreasonable burden on the free exercise of religion. After all, if you can’t worship safely because of the threat of anti-Semitic violence, how can you be free to practice your religion?

Legalities aside, there is a larger problem here: these laws may be well-meaning, but the fact remains that, if enacted, potential victims will comply with the law, while their potential attackers won’t. As a result, the attackers will remain armed and dangerous, while potential protectors will be disarmed and limited to the run, hide, and fight directives of local synagogue security committees. These committees do great work, but they necessarily tell congregants, as a last resort, to throw a siddur (Jewish prayer book) at an attacker. A siddur, alas, is a poor substitute for a gun in a firefight.

In some ways, this is a uniquely American dilemma. In Israel, Jews wary of terror attacks regularly attend synagogue armed both on the Sabbath and during the rest of the week. Most of the carriers are trained veterans of the nation’s mandatory military service. Other nations with large Jewish populations, including Canada, Britain, and France, all have stricter gun laws than the U.S., diminishing the likelihood that either assailants or protectors will carry guns. Only in America do both attackers and protectors have relatively free access to weapons, which is the necessary predicate for this debate.

The 3,000-year-old Jewish tradition has examined the tension between sanctity and safety in the synagogue. In the book of Exodus, the almighty offers instructions for building a sacrificial altar—what would become a central component of the holy Sanctuary. The Israelites are told that it is not to be made of hewn, or carved, stone. Using a sword—a weapon—in the construction of a ritual object, the Bible makes clear, would profane what is meant to be sanctified. Yet the Jewish tradition also recognizes instances of violence as necessary in defense of holy places. The Book of Kings recounts how the rebellious Joab, after a failed coup, tries to avoid capture from King Solomon by grasping the sanctuary altar. Solomon ordered him executed there nonetheless.

A rabbinic teaching in the collection Pesikta Rabbati suggests that the branches of the makeshift menorah constructed by the Maccabees after they defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the war commemorated in the holiday of Hanukkah were spears of the Jews’ defeated enemies—an allowance, albeit an impromptu one, of weapons in the sanctuary constituting a ritual object. And indeed, that victory itself stemmed in part from a compromise regarding the sanctity of the Jewish Sabbath. Per the book of Maccabees, the Jews were initially hesitant to fight back on the day of rest, which the Greeks used to their advantage. Mattathias, the father of Judah the Maccabee, realized that Jewish law was to be compromised for the protection of lives, declaring, “If any man comes against us on the Sabbath day, we shall fight against him and not all die as our brothers did in their hiding places.” His stance helped spur the eventual Maccabean victory.

Judaism’s emphasis on personal safety is threaded throughout its traditional sources, stressing the importance of protecting life, pikuach nefesh, while seeking to avoid a militaristic mentality. The Talmud prohibits carrying weapons on the Sabbath, and the thirteenth-century rabbinic scholar Meir of Rothenburg notes that objects used to shorten one’s life should have no place in a house of prayer. Nonetheless, in times of crisis, it is sanctity of life that supersedes that of the sanctuary itself. The twentieth-century Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg ruled that weapons are allowed in synagogue if needed for protection, though ideally, they should be concealed. Other modern rabbinic figures have similarly allowed the deterrent of a weapon in synagogue during dangerous times, even on the Sabbath, when carrying and utilizing mechanical objects is usually forbidden.

As usual, when it comes to answers of Jewish law, the subject is complicated. But there appears to be sufficient rabbinic justification to allow for the practice of taking weapons to synagogue for self-protection on religious grounds. Those who receive the certification and training to do so are acting in accord with rabbinic and historic tradition that favors protecting life above all other religious considerations.

This still leaves open the question of American law and practice. Regardless of how Maryland or New York settle the legal issues, one can rest assured that Jews in red-state synagogues will continue to be armed. Many Jews who carry weapons in synagogue won’t admit to doing so, opting for a form of strategic ambiguity that can leave assailants guessing. Others, however, are quite up-front about what they are doing. As Houston-based Richard Rolnick reported in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, “My Orthodox synagogue has a security team manned by shul members who have been trained by a former Army Ranger, a current police department SWAT officer and a former Israeli Shin Bet agent. I regularly undergo firearms practice.”

Rolnick’s approach evokes the 1960s Jewish-rights activist Meir Kahane and his rhyming refrain, “Every Jew a .22.” Kahane remains a controversial figure within the Jewish community, but in an age of rising anti-Semitism his view on Jews and guns is gaining adherents. The Jewish writer Liel Leibovitz recently told the journalist Eli Lake on the Re-Education podcast, “I believe every Jewish man, woman and child, and I say this very deliberately, ought to carry weapons at all times and know precisely how to use them.” Leibovitz added: “at this point if you’re Jewish and lack the means to defend yourself, hopefully or preferably with a firearm, I think you’re delusional.”

Even those who feel the need to bear arms in synagogue hold on to the very Jewish hope that the need won’t be permanent. After all, the Hebrew Bible envisions an era in which “swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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