A halakhic analysis of the Monsey terror attack

Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Judaism Scene of Monsey attack
Scene of Monsey attack
INN:YH

There is a Midrash in Aicha Rabba (chapter two) that is very instructive.  It tells us (in the reverse order that follows):  If they tell you that there is Torah among the goyim, do not believe it.  If they tell you that there is wisdom among the goyim – believe it.

On Motzaei Shabbos, a man stabbed five people with a machete, as they celebrated Hannukah next to Rabbi Roottenburg’s shul in Monsey.

Within 24 hours of this horrific event, a man pulled out a shotgun at a Texas church service and fired on worshippers Sunday, killing two people.  In the second incident, the man was shot to death by two congregants who fired back, according to the police.

Regarding the second incident, authorities at a Sunday evening news conference praised the two congregants who opened fire as part of a volunteer security team at the West Freeway Church in White Settlement.

“This team responded quickly and within six seconds, the shooting was over. Two of the parishioners who were volunteers of the security force drew their weapons and took out the killer immediately, saving untold number of lives," said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Authorities said there were more than 240 parishioners in the West Freeway Church at the time of the shooting.

Perhaps no where can we see this Midrash better applied than in the two events occurring within one day of each other. 

There is another important concept within Torah Judaism.  Hashem sends us directional signals in how to conduct ourselves in life.  We find this idea in the ninth chapter of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah.  We receive brachos and klalos as directional signals.

There is no question that there were remarkable heroes in the Monsey incident.  Jews fought with the attacker to prevent tragedy.  One threw a coffee table at him and tried to get the attacker to follow him outside - so that others not get hurt.  A hasidish gentleman made every effort that the attacker not enter the synagogue next door.

All this is true, but the horrific tragedies in New Jersey, and in Monsey, should cause us, perhaps, to rethink the manner in which we observe a certain halakha.  It is not that halakha should change.  Rather, changing circumstances leads us to the application of different aspects of halakha.

The question is: Does the current situation warrant that a number of responsible and well-trained members of shuls and administrators in yeshivos should, where it is legal, arm themselves with guns at this point?

This author believes that it should, and here is why.

The Background:

The Gemorah (Brachos 54b) tells us that Tefillah, prayer, lengthens a person’s life. A long knife or sword, on the other hand, shortens a person’s life. The Orchos Chaim cites the Maharam of Rottenberg that based upon this dichotomy, a Jew should not bring a sword or long knife into shul. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 151:6) rules in accordance with this view, although some Poskim have stated that this ruling of the Shulchan Aruch is really more of a piece of ethical advice rather than psak halakha.

The Gemorah in Sanhedrin (82a) cites the fact that Pinchas arose from the congregation and he took a spear in his hand. The Gemorah explains that from here we see that a weapon is forbidden in the Beis haMidrash.

The Situation Today

First and foremost, the issue of Pikuach Nefesh supersedes the halakha of not bringing a weapon into shul.  The Torah tells us v’chai bahem – and we shall live by the Torah – not die by them.

Secondly, having armed individuals in shul can save lives, and saving life is a fundamental Mitzvah. What is the source of this Mitzvah? The verse in Parshas Ki Taytzai (Dvarim 22:2) discusses the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveida, returning an object, with the words “vahashaivoso lo – and you shall return it to him.”

The Gemorah in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.”  For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “vahashaivoso lo.” In other words, this verse is the source for the Mitzvah of saving someone’s life. I believe this is the general mitzvah the Shulchan Aruch refers to in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 325.

Lo Saamod Al Dam Rayacha

There is a negative Mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood as well.  This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (CM 426:1) and in the Rambam.  Collectively, if we adopt such a policy in having armed people in every Beis Midrash in Eretz Yisroel, we can ensure that we do not stand idly by our brother’s blood.

Lo Suchal l’hisalaym

There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of Hashavas Aveida, and that is the verse in Dvarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.”  This verse comes directly after the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveidah. The Netziv (HeEmek Sheailah) refers to this Mitzvah as well.

V’Chai Achicha Imach

The Sheiltos (Sheilta #37), based upon the Gemorah in Bava Metziah 62a,  understands these words to indicate an obligation to save others with you.  The Netziv in his He’Emek She’ailah understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. He writes that he must exert every effort to save his friend’s life – until it becomes Pikuach Nefesh for himself.

V’Ahavta l’Rayacha Kamocha

The Ramban, Toras haAdam Shaar HaSakana (p42-43) understands the verse of “and love thy neighbor as yourself” as a directive to save him from danger as well. Although he discusses the issue of medical danger, it is clear that this is an example, and it would apply to danger from physical enemies as well. Even without the Ramban, however, it is clear that defending and protecting someone from danger is a fulfillment of this Mitzvah.

There are authorities (Rabbeinu Peretz, TaZ 151:2, and Eliyahu Rabbah 151:10) that write that the halakha is limited to a long knife or a sword that cannot be covered. If it is a smaller and coverable knife, these Poskim are lenient. It would seem to me that a handgun may be similarly covered and thus would not present a problem according to these authorities. While this may be a minority view, when dealing with issues of danger to life, one may rely upon minority opinions.

Both Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer Vol. X #18) Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechave Daas Vol. V #18) rule that Israeli soldiers may hold on to their guns in shul when necessary.  The idea presented here is merely an extension of that ruling in light of the new dangers in this Intifada.

Just like we have fire exits in this country, the hanhalah of our mosdos should consider making sure that there are responsible and adequately trained staff members or kollel members that are both present and armed. There should be an armed presence in our mosdos 24 hours a day.

Idna D’Rischa

From a theological perspective, we have perhaps entered what Chazal term as an, “Idna d’rischa.” One of my rebbeim, Rav Dovid Kviat zichron kadosh v'tzaddik livracha, once explained that there are two manners in which Hashem judges the world. He judges with both Midas HaDin, the attribute of Strict Judgement, and with Midas HaRachamim, the attribute of Mercy.

Generally speaking, Hashem judges us with Midas HaRachamim. However, there are times in Jewish history known as an idna derischa: periods of Divine Anger. The Gemorah in Menachos (43a) tells us that generally Hashem does not punish people for abnegating a Mitzvas Assei, a positive Mitzvah in the Torah.  We are only punished for violating negative prohibitions. However, in a period of Divine Anger, we are punished for negating positive Mitzvos too.

Rav Kviat explained that there is an idea found in Sefer Dvarim (31:18) of “Hester Panim”, where Hashem, so to speak, hides His face.

In an idna derischa, Hashem ceases to judge with Midas HaRachamim. He judges instead with Midas HaDin. Midas HaDin is almost unfathomable to the mortal mind in terms of its sheer strictness. No one wishes to be judged with the Midas HaDin.

What Hashem did during the Holocaust, a period of idna derischa, was to invoke the idea of Hester Panim – where He hid Himself. Hitler and his Nazis y”s could use their freedom of choice here because it was an idna derischa and there was divine Hester Panim. The Hester Panim, however, is limited to the point of Midas HaDin.

With such dangers facing Klal Yisroel, we must take steps to ensure the safety of our shuls and Bnei Yeshiva in whatever way we can. This recent tragedy brings this idea home. It goes without saying that it should never involve breaking the law, and it should be done with the cooperation of the local police departments.

May Hashem bring yeshuos and nechamos to His nation and end this period of Divine Anger.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com




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