The Murderous Court

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Capital punishment? Even a casual reader will inevitably notice that there’s a whole lot of it going on in the Bible. A significant sampling, in fact, can be found of this week’s Torah portion Parashat Mishpatim, which spells out several vivid capital offenses, from bestiality to insulting one’s parents.

Thank goodness that the Bible does not have the final word on capital punishment in Jewish tradition! For their part, the Rabbis sought to balance the need for justice with the understanding that all life is unique and sacred – so they set the proof threshold in such a way that it became virtually impossible to actually carry out. For the Rabbis, the business of taking a life for life is no small matter, as this famous Mishnah makes clear:

A Sanhedrin that executed (more than) one person in a week is called a “murderous” (court). Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah states: (more than) one person in 70 years (would be denoted as a murderous court). Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state: “If we had been members of the Sanhedrin, no defendant would ever have been executed.”

As for me, I stand with Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva. Our national death penalty system must certainly be considered “murderous” by any reasonable standard. Thankfully, there are indications that this situation may be changing in our country. My home state of Illinois placed a moratorium on state executions in 2000; the state of Maryland followed suit in 2002. And just this last December, New Jersey repealed its death penalty. Governor Jon Corzine marked the occasion with these powerful words:

Today New Jersey is truly evolving. I believe society first must determine if its endorsement of violence begets violence, and if violence undermines our commitment to the sanctity of life.

Is there an actual sea change going on in our nation’s death penalty consciousness? According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a 2006 Gallup Poll found that overall support of the death penalty was 65% (down from 80% in 1994). The same poll revealed that when respondents are given the choice of life without parole as an alternate sentencing option, more choose life without parole (48%) than the death penalty (47%). This past month, the Supreme Court heard arguments that death by lethal injection should be considered an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. While they are not expected to rule on the case until this Spring it is telling that just yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a last minute reprieve for the execution of an Alabama death-row inmate.

Whether or not there is new momentum in the air, those of us who opposed state-sanctioned killing cannot let up in our efforts for its abolition. For more info and advocacy opportunities, click here.

6 thoughts on “The Murderous Court

  1. In 21:28-32, the death penalty can be replaced with a fine and redemption of life provided that the cause of death was an “ox.” Do any Rabbis interpret the ox figuratively? The ox could represent our animal instincts, mental illness, passions, the evil inclination, etc so that this verse commands removing the source of violence within us instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence with capital punishment. Could it be that Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva believed that there is always an ox?

  2. Those who prefer to house criminals will soon learn the folly of becoming pacifists, when we fought, and I took part of eradicating the Japanese, was that not Capital punishment? How about the war with Germany, the one my brother died for in Belgium, and all the Jews and others who died in the Holocaust, we seeked them who were part of this madness,and we gave them the the Capitol Punisment. I later visited Terezin , Lidice and other places in Europe where my heart cried out for even greater compensation for killers.

  3. Hi,

    While I agree completely that the American system of death is a disgrace, this statement cannot go unchallenged: “Thank goodness that the Bible does not have the final word on capital punishment in Jewish tradition!”

    Chas V’Shalom! As a “Rabbi”, you’re surely aware that the Written Torah and the Oral Torah are two sides of the same coin. Halakha l’Moshe min Sinai is as much a part of the “Bible” as B’reishis 1:1.

  4. Excellent commentary, Rabbi! Your understanding of the depravity of capital punishment is spot on.

    As Jews – we are charged with Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world) – state-sanctioned murder cannot be the tool that we use to achieve justice. We fail to see that capital punishment is itself violence, even though it is intended to be humane.

    Equating respect for life with ‘pacifism’ is nonsense, especially when the term ‘pacifism’ is used as a pejorative. We are commanded to seek peace and resort to war only when no other course is available.

    Or, as is attributed to the great Rabbi Mohandas K. Gandhi – ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the whole world blind. It is time for the human race to exit adolescence and start acting like adults.

    Mitch Goldstein
    Greensburg, PA

  5. as part of a nj death penalty abolition group, noa received a post card with a beautiful photo of the roman colisseum all lit up after nj repealed our death penalty. they illuminate it every time capitol punishment is struck down anywhere in the world. what a sight!!

  6. It’s always stuck me as strange to see the list of Countries who permit the Death Penalty: Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, North Korea, all the repressive regimes are there…Plus America.

    I would rather see the vilest most heinous criminals see out their days in Prison than allow one single innocent soul go to the gallows.

    P.s. Fab Blog, please keep writing 🙂

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