Eye for an Eye - No More

Posted by RabbiCohen on Dec. 19, 2020  /   0

As we watch the waning days of the Trump presidency, I’ve been particularly upset by the increase in the number of federal executions. Knowing that the Biden-Harris administration will likely stop federal executions, the Trump-Pence administration is using these final weeks for an unprecedented number.  

To me, these executions seem particularly politically-motivated, arbitrary and cruel. There are extensive news reports and articles about the cases, the victims and perpetrators. I don’t need to rehash them here.  But, I would like to share what Judaism says about capital punishment.

Many people believe that Judaism is pro-capital punishment due to statements like “a life for a life” in the Torah.  (Exodus 21)  Let’s face it – the Hebrew Bible is quite focused on retribution.  In fact, the Torah lists 36 different crimes punishable by death – including being a rebellious child.  If our community had enforced all these, well, we certainly would not have survived for 5000 years!  

Judaism, in its 5000 years, has evolved and changed, becoming far more nuanced and compassion-minded. While the Hebrew Bible can be blood-thirsty, the later rabbinic texts are decidedly not.   The Mishnah (first rabbinic text and backbone for the Talmud) says that a Sanhedrin (rabbinic congress) that imposes a death penalty once in 70 years is considered murderous.

The first rabbis incorporated so many exceptions, safeguards and requirements into the Talmud that they effectively banished capital punishment.

  • They emphasized Judaism’s respect for life’s sanctity in their writings by focusing on statements like “You shall not kill.”
  • They interpreted death penalty texts very narrowly, making it nearly impossible for them to apply to any real-world examples. 
  • They replaced the death penalty with alternative punishments.
  • And they imposed requirements for procedures, evidence and witnesses that nearly impossible

Today, Jewish groups are at the forefront of fighting against the death penalty.  In Israel, the death penalty has only been used once – for Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.  In fact, Israeli law outlaws the death penalty for any crime except for genocide.   The death penalty was not even considered for Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995.

The next few weeks will likely include several more executions here in the United States.  Some religious leaders will point to the Bible as justification.  Those in the Jewish community will not be among them.  It is not much solace, but it is something.    

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