“If the thief is seized while tunneling and beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in that case.” (Exodus 22:1)
I am writing this on Valentine’s Day. I will admit that I have never felt that Jews should celebrate a day named after a Christian saint. Historically, the Roman emperor Claudius II, believing that single men made better soldiers, refused to allow young men to marry. Valentine continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. As a reward, he was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Even if I have not celebrated Valentine’s Day, it is impossible to ignore it. A colleague of mine renamed the day Partner Appreciation Day, a wonderful idea. But it is doubtful that a new name will ever be accepted; Saint Valentine is ingrained in our consciousness. So over the last few years, I have given Evelyn flowers, an ice cream cake, or some other symbol of my love.
Having said that, this day will never quite be the same for anybody who lives in our community. Five years ago on Valentine’s Day, a gunman burst into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, up the street from where I live, and murdered seventeen students and teachers. Seventeen others were wounded. I am a volunteer chaplain with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and I received an emergency call to meet with families of the victims. I spent the day with many families, including two who would shortly find out that their children were murdered. I attended those two funerals; I wanted to attend all seventeen.
The day will always be tinged with sadness in my mind. I would have thought that these events would finally convince our country to ban assault weapons and limit access to guns. But despite small steps, guns are more available than ever. Since that day there have been more massacres including 21 students and teachers killed in Uvalde, TX. Last night gun violence erupted again at Michigan State University, killing 3. I sense it will never stop in our country.
What can I learn from the Torah about guns? Obviously guns did not exist when the Torah was written. But weapons that could kill did exist. This week’s portion speaks of the use of such a weapon. If a thief is caught tunneling into someone’s home at night and the home owner kills the thief, the homeowner is not guilty. But if a thief is caught tunneling into someone’s home by day and the homeowner kills the thief, the homeowner is guilty.
At first reading, this seems like a strange law. What is the difference if the thief is caught at night or during the day? The usual answer is that by night the thief knows that people are home, that the thief will be a threat to those people, and therefore killing the thief at night is self-defense. By day the thief assumes nobody will be home, the thief is not a threat to life, and therefore there is no claim of self-defense by day.
The Rabbis reinterpret the verse to make it more clear. Night and day are not to be taken literally. By day means that it is clear as day that the thief is not a threat to life, and therefore if the homeowner kills the thief, the homeowner is guilty. Violence can only be used in self-defense, to protect a life. Violence cannot be used to protect property, where there is no threat to human life.
We can learn from this. Guns ought to be permissible in situations of self-defense, where human life is threatened. The trouble with many of our gun laws such as Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is that they permit gun use even when there is no clear threat to human life. On a personal level, I have shot a gun (at a target range) and I have no problem with guns in principle. I do have a problem with assault rifles being made available to people outside the military and police. And I do have a problem with no limit on who can purchase a gun.
People have the right to own and drive cars. But they must be trained and licensed. In the same way, I believe people have a right to bear arms, to quote the second amendment. But I believe they must be trained and licensed. Unfortunately, as the mass murders continue, I see no chance that this will happen in our country.