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 And just this last December, New Jersey repealed its death penalty.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.