Jews, hunters, and Sunday hunting bans

Click photo to download. Caption: Orthodox Jewish hunter Josh First, a businessman, former congressional candidate, and political activist in Harrisburg, Pa. Credit: Courtesy of Josh First.

By Dmitriy Shapiro/JNS.org/Washington Jewish Week

For most Jews in the United States, hunting laws are not a concern. Following World War II, most Jews settled in urban or suburban areas, far from roaming turkeys, elk, bears, and deer, outside of the occasional casualty in the highway emergency lane.

Therefore, few even realize that the same laws that in some places prevent liquor purchases on Sundays, otherwise known as blue laws, also restrict hunting.

That troubles Josh First, a businessman, former congressional candidate, and political activist in Harrisburg, Pa., who happens to be a proud hunter. He is also an Orthodox Jew, meaning that his observance of Shabbat—and an 1873 Pennsylvania law that outlaws most large-animal hunting—necessitates going the whole weekend without firing a shot.

First has signed on as an adviser with Hunters United for Sunday Hunting (HUSH), which brought a lawsuit against the state’s Game Commission after years of unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Sunday hunting ban in the state legislature. It has even become a campaign issue in the Keystone State’s gubernatorial race, with U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA)—after five terms in Congress representing areas in and around Northeast Philadelphia—calling for the law’s repeal in her challenge to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Click photo to download. Caption: In Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz (pictured), a member of the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, has made repealing the state’s Sunday hunting ban a platform issue in her bid to unseat Republican incumbent Tom Corbett. Credit: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

Pennsylvania has the largest hunter population in the U.S., according to LehighValleyLive.com. The most recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed Schwartz,  a member of the greater Philadelphia Jewish community , would beat Corbett 45-35 percent.

Although Schwartz is Jewish, First still finds himself in a minority of a minority. He’s the only Jew in HUSH.

“Culturally, Jews are traditionally urban and politically liberal and not exposed to hunting or trapping,” First said, explaining why there are so few Jewish hunters. “And these are practices that are considered, let’s be honest, goyish.”

First regularly goes hunting for deer, bears, and wild turkeys with other Orthodox Jews from Harrisburg, New York City, and Los Angeles, and said he keeps his hunting cabin strictly kosher.

“I think overcoming judgmentalism and cultural bias is probably the biggest challenge,” he said. “If you tell a religious Jew in New York that you’re hunting, most of them think, ‘You couldn’t possibly be Jewish. Jews don’t hunt.’”

The religious view

As the political battle plays out in Pennsylvania, people like First face an internal religious debate. Although First is confident hunting is acceptable in traditional interpretations of Jewish law, others, such as Rabbi Dovid Bendory, rabbinic director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, disagree.

“In Jewish law, hunting for sport is pretty universally prohibited,” said Bendory. “Hunting because you need the animal in some way is permissible—hunting where the animal is going to be used, if not by you but by someone else. Then it becomes a discussion as to whether or not it’s an appropriate activity to engage in, and the reality is, in the modern world, there are few situations in which the Jew is hunting to use the animal.”

“Using” a hunted animal can present some problems, since an animal that is killed before ritual slaughter is not considered kosher. Another legal issue surrounds the general prohibition of unnecessarily inflicting pain on another living creature.

First, however, believes that most of the Orthodox opinion on the subject comes from a lack of hands-on experience.

“You have to see something with your own eyes, you have to do something with your own hands, you have to witness something in order to understand what it is,” he argued. “For somebody to sit at their desk and pontificate on something they don’t know a thing about is shameful. It is not being a real halachic authority.”

First points out that no part of an animal he and his group hunts is wasted; they will even distribute its meat to their non-Jewish friends.

Bendory isn’t moved by such a stance.

“Whether or not you can bend the halachic prohibition on hunting by saying, ‘Well, I’m shooting the animal for my non-Jewish friends here,’ is a highly debatable question,” he said.

“There has to be a purpose,” added Rabbi Chaim Schertz, the retired senior rabbi at the Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg. “Halachic authorities do not feel that this is a Jewish value; however, from my perspective, the skill involved in being able to understand how animals live and what the woods are like and to be outdoors—to have the ability to survive—that to me is an important skill to attain.

“But it does not require me to actually kill any animals,” continued the rabbi.

Yet Schertz noted an opinion by Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, who in his 18th-century work, “Noda B’Yehudah,” wrote that it might even be acceptable for Jews to hunt for sport in certain cases. Since animals were created for people’s use, the logic goes, it could be argued that deriving pleasure from the sport of hunting is a tangible use.

Even if the question of whether it is permitted for Orthodox Jews to hunt is murky, the rules of Shabbat are clear, and the Sunday hunting ban remains an issue in states other than Pennsylvania.

The Sunday Hunting Coalition, which includes the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Association, and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance among its members, is lobbying for legislation to repeal Sunday hunting bans in the 11 states that still have full or partial bans on the books. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware, which all have full Sunday hunting bans, states such as Maryland and West Virginia have partial bans in which Sunday hunting laws are decided by individual counties.

According to Jake McGuigan, the National Shooting Sports Association’s director of state affairs and government relations, this year’s efforts are focused on repealing Virginia’s Sunday hunting law; Pennsylvania is next on its agenda.

The Virginia General Assembly recently passed House Bill 1237, which would allow Sunday hunting on private property. Written permission from the property owner would be required. The bill is expected to pass the Virginia State Senate this week and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly expressed his position in favor of the measure.

This article is exclusive to JNS.org.

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Posted on February 19, 2014 and filed under Features, Jewish Life, U.S..