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The Torah and self-defense

Posted by Richard on July 22, 2005

Last night, I attended a meeting of Jewish Republicans. And they were both nice people. [rimshot] Seriously, it’s a sizable and growing group. There were about 50 people there, and I was told that turnout is lower than normal in the summer months.

I was drawn by the appearance of David Kopel. If you’re a regular reader of The Volokh Conspiracy, or NRO’s The Corner, or keep up at all with 2nd Amendment issues, you’re probably familiar with his work.

I’ve heard Kopel speak a number of times over the years and have had a few chances to talk with him, and he’s always a treat to listen to — extremely knowledgeable, articulate, and with a nice, dry sense of humor. On this occasion, he discussed the laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and Talmud related to self-defense. His presentation was based on his Penn State Law Review article, "The Torah and Self-Defense" (link is to PDF), from which I quote below.

This is fascinating stuff, even for a non-believer like me. As Kopel notes in a footnote of the article, the Torah is one of the foundations of Western thought. I was interested in his explanation of the distinction between the laws God gave to Noah after the flood (the first legal code in the Bible, sometimes called "Jewish natural law"), which are supposed to apply to all humanity, and later laws that are supposed to apply only to the Hebrews (such as the dietary prohibitions). Kopel argued that the concept of human rights was born in this first set of laws (footnotes omitted):

God forbade murder, and required the death penalty in cases of murder: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” The rule helps explain why human life is sacred: because man is made in God’s image. The concept of imago Dei would become a foundation for the development of human rights. Made in God’s image, all humans necessarily have an inherent dignity.

Kopel went on to discuss relevant lessons from the stories of Abraham and Moses, Torah laws regarding home defense and the right and duty to come to the aid of others who are attacked, Talmudic commentary, and the absurdity of mistranslating the Sixth Commandment as a prohibition against all killing. Regarding the latter, Kopel notes:

No one actually interprets "Thou shalt not kill" completely literally. The commandment, after all, does not say "Thou shalt not kill humans," but simply says "Thou shalt not kill."  …

Theoretically, one could live entirely by eating wild berries and other fruit, thereby not killing anything through food consumption. But even then, one might sometimes kill insects, rats, or other pests in the home. Anyone who takes antibiotics, or uses antibiotic soap, is deliberately killing millions of bacteria.

… The word in the original Hebrew text is
r’tzach, which would be translated as “murder.” The Jewish Publication Society commentary on Exodus explains that the Hebrew verb stem “applies only to illegal killing and, unlike other verbs for the taking of life, is never used in the administration of justice or for killing in war.”

You can find all this and more in the PDF linked above, but you’ll unfortunately miss the terrific question-and-answer session that followed his presentation.

If you’re interested in gun/self-defense rights, other human rights, environmental law, media analysis, or terrorism, you should add DaveKopel.com to your list of resources. Highly recommended.

UPDATE: It’s simply unforgivable of me to write a post on the Torah and self-defense and not include a link to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. JPFO bills itself, justifiably, as "America’s Most Aggressive Defender of Firearms Ownership." It also works hard to promote the Bill of Rights and to encourage commemorations of Bill of Rights Day (December 15).

JPFO has also created the award-winning documentary film, Innocents Betrayed, that tells the story of the 170,000,000 civilians murdered by their own governments in the 20th century — after those governments first deprived them of firearms.

You don’t have to be Jewish to join JPFO. I’m a Life Member, and I’m of Austrian/German heritage and an atheist. I encourage you to join JPFO, purchase Innocents Betrayed (and share it with others), sign up for JPFO email alerts, and visit the JPFO site often.

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