Since 2018, there have been three violent attacks on worshippers at American synagogues; numerous others were attempted, threatened, or successfully foiled by law enforcement. Under these circumstances, Jewish communities have adopted various protective measures, including arming themselves. State laws in Maryland and New York, however, specifically prohibit carrying weapons in houses of prayer. Stuart Halpern and Tevi Troy argue against such regulations:
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.
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.