Category Archives: Capital Punishment

Our Wayward and Defiant Children


My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, we read:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So what is this, some kind of sick joke?

In fairness, it should be noted that many classical Jewish commentators have properly recoiled from these infamous verses. In a well-known Talmudic passage, R. Judah and R. Simeon went as far as to claim that this law was never actually enacted, stating, “There never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son. (BT Sanhedrin 71a)

Why then, you might ask, was this law included in the Torah? Rabbis Judah and Simeon cryptically respond: “Seek and you shall find reward” – a comment commonly understood to mean parents should study this passage and be appropriately scared enough to set their children on the right path.

In this Talmudic understanding, then, the commandment of the wayward and defiant son thus seems to serve as a kind of parental shock therapy. Whether or not we find this advice “rewarding,” I do think that these Torah verses reflect every parent’s deepest insecurities – and society’s latent fear that it might somehow lose control of its children.

When I think of this week’s Torah portion, I can’t help but think of our own city of Chicago, where the police’s customary response to youth violence too often, is more violence. As Tamar Manasseh, founder of the local South Side organization Mother’s Against Senseless Killings recently wrote:

Putting more police on the streets or sending in the National Guard will not solve the scourge of gun violence in our communities. There will be no reduction in crime; in reality, nothing will be reduced except the number of people who are left in these neighborhoods. That’s what happens when you eliminate schools and allow food deserts to exist: People who can afford to move will do so, and the people left behind will be over-policed.

“Seek and you shall find reward.” Or, as Tamar so wisely noted,

It’s time to invest in our public schools, in job creation and in training programs to give back hope to people who have so little of it left. Chicago’s ghettos are in dire need of repair; they can be healed only when our politicians pursue policies that will raise our communities up instead of keeping us under the heel of the police.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Mark Stroman Executed: The “Mission of Reconciliation” Lives On…

Postscript to my July 11 post, “Rais Bhuiyan and the Power of Forgiveness:”

A federal district judge in Austin rejected Bhuiyan’s request for a stay of execution on Wednesday afternoon. His lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, where Justice Antonin Scalia turned it down.  Mark Stroman was executed this past Wednesday.

Columnist Tony Norman, writing today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Sometimes the best Christians are the ones who pray to Allah.

Deep in the heart of the Christian republic of Texas, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh named Rais Bhuiyan waged a futile legal battle to spare the life of the man who tried to kill him a decade ago…

Though his partner in forgiveness is dead, Mr. Bhuiyan continues to take the mission of reconciliation seriously. Maybe one day he’ll find a Christian or two in Texas who take it seriously, too.

I would only add that we all struggle to realize the sacred mission of reconciliation seriously, whether we are Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Jain – and whether we live in Texas, California, New York or Illinois.

Thank you, Rais Bhuiyan. You are a true spiritual teacher for us all.

Rais Bhuiyan and the Power of Forgiveness


Click above to see the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi Muslim man who was shot and grievously wounded during a post-9/11 shooting spree.

You may remember that immediately following the attacks on September 11, a white supremacist named Mark Stroman shot and killed two men: Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani on September 15 and Vasudev Patel, an immigrant from India, on October 4. Bhuiyan was the only one to survive this rampage – he was shot and wounded on September 21. All of the attacks took place in Dallas gas stations and convenience stores.

The powerful twist to this story: Bhuiyan has forgiven Stroman, and is now pleading for a stay of his execution, which is scheduled to take place on July 20.

From Bhuiyan’s website, “World Without Hate:”

There are three reasons I feel this way. The first is because of what I learned from my parents. They raised me with the religious principle that he is best who can forgive easily. The second reason is because of what I believe as a Muslim, which is that human lives are precious and that no one has the right to take another human’s life. In my faith, forgiveness is the best policy and Islam doesn’t allow for hate and killing. And, finally, I seek solace for the wives and children of Mr. Hasan and Mr. Patel, who are also victims in this tragedy. Executing Stroman is not what they want, either. They have already suffered so much; it will only cause more suffering if he is executed.

In another extraordinary twist to this story, Mark Stroman himself has become the subject of a documentary that Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv has been working on for the past seven years.


Following a confessed killer and a self-described racist seemed like an odd choice for a film, let alone for a film that would take years to make. But there was something in Mark that caught my attention. There was something beyond the facade of tattoos and the “red neck” talk. Even seven years ago I could detect certain vulnerabilities, warmth and intelligence that did not fit the image of a serial killer, “a monster” as the prosecutor tried to portray him.

Over the years I interviewed Mark’s relatives, friends and his victims but most of all I kept in touch with Mark. I helped him out when I could, corresponded with him. and visited him a few times with a camera but many more times without.

I created a website, Execution Chronicles, where Mark began to post weekly blogs. In the past 3 years, Mark posted over 151 blogs, which are a testimony to his growth and development. In retrospect, what seemed odd at the time has paid off. Mark as changed considerably and has become quite thoughtful and insightful about his own past and racist views.

I’ve been fairly open about my faith in the healing power of forgiveness – as well as my moral views on the death penalty. I urge you to join me in signing Rais Bhuiyan’s petition to Texas governor Rick Perry to grant a stay of execution to Mark Stroman. I do believe that ending yet another life will only magnify further the hate and violence that has marked this tragic story. Bhiuyan and Ziv are showing us a different way – we’d do well to follow their moral example.

(h/t: Anya Cordell)

Illinois Senate Abolishes the Death Penalty!

Amidst all of the talk of our nation’s violent political rhetoric, here’s a ray of light:  the Illinois senate voted yesterday to abolish the death penalty in our state!  In other words, they took a stand against “state-sponsored” violence.

The bill now goes to Governor Pat Quinn, who has not indicated yet whether or not he intends to sign. Illinois residents: contact Governor Quinn now and let him know you want Illinois to be the 16th state to strike down the death penalty!

Illinois Death Penalty On Brink of Abolition!

Opponents of capital punishment got some rare good news yesterday when the Illinois House voted to approve legislation that would abolish the death penalty in our state.

It ain’t law yet, though. With the days ticking down on the lame duck session of the General Assembly, the bill now goes to the State Senate, where its approval is by no means assured.

If you are an Illinois resident, please check out the website of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, to learn how you can take action to help pass SB 3539 at this critical juncture.  Legislators will only be in session for a few more days so we really do have little time to spare.

And if you’re so inclined, here’s a post I wrote on Judaism and Capital punishment back in 2008.

Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill: The Plot Thickens

If ever we needed a lesson in how prejudice can fan the flames of oppression, how is this? The NY Times recently reported that three American evangelical Christians visited Uganda last March to give a series of high profile talks:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

As it turns out, just one month after the conference, a Ugandan politician who claims to have ties to evangelical members of the American government, introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which among other things, imposes a death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The evangelicals are naturally backtracking, claiming they had no idea their anti-gay ideas could possibly be used in such a way. (One is actually quoted as saying, “Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people.”)

I’ve visited Uganda twice with members of my congregation, and I can personally attest to the palpable growth of American evangelicalism in that country. Whether or not this bill bears direct American influence, I can’t help but note the disingenuousness of someone who preaches that “the gay movement is an evil institution” then expresses surprise when others prove more than willing to take him at his word.

Click here for a CNN article on the Ugandan bill, and here for a Human Rights Watch Report.

Bearing Witness

From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim:

A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.

(Deuteronomy 16:6)

Taking its cue from Torah verses such as this, Jewish law places a powerfully high value on the importance of witnesses. For instance, not only is a minimum of two witnesses is necessary to convict, but both must have directly witnessed the crime. Heresay is inadmissible as is coerced witness testimony. Indeed, bearing witness is a profoundly sacred act in Jewish tradition, as the ninth commandment (not to meantion pages and pages of Talmudic debate) make clear.

As a Jew, I am particularly mindful of these values in the case of Georgia death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis (above), who was sentenced to death for the murder of a Savannah policeman in 1991. Davis’ conviction was made solely on the basis of witness testimony – almost all of which has proven to be inconsistent and dubious.  All but two of the witnesses in Davis’ case have since recanted, many alleging they were pressured or coerced by police. (There was no physical eveidence implicating Davis and the murder weapon was never found).

Many of these witnesses in Davis’ case have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against him. (One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense. There is new evidence implicating this individual as the gunman and nine individuals have since signed affidavits implicating him).

At the very least, questions about the veracity of witness testimony would seem to warrant a new trial for Davis, but the Georgia Supreme Court denied this to Davis last March. This stunning decision means that the state of Georgia might soon execute a man who may well be innocent. (His execution date now stand at September 23).

In the spirit of Torah’s exhoration this week, tzedek, tzedek tirdof (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”), I encourage you to learn more about the Troy Davis case. This Amnesty International update contains more information, as well as resources for advocacy on Davis’ behalf.  You can also learn more from  Troy Davis’ website.

The Murderous Court


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.

Sick to My Stomach

hangmans-noose.jpgLike many of you, I couldn’t avoid images of Saddam’s hanging blasting out at me from every corner of the web this past week. The top posts on most blogs invariably advertised the most “uncensored” version of the now infamous cell phone footage of the Hussein execution. Not a proud week to be a blogger…

Apart from the sheer barbarism of this film being shared so happily across the world and into our computers, I can’t help but be sickened by everything that this event represents. It was put very aptly by John Simpson, the World Affairs editor of the BBC, reporting from Iraq:

Altogether, the execution as we now see it is shown to be an ugly, degrading business, which is more reminiscent of a public hanging in the 18th century than a considered act of 21st century official justice. Under Saddam Hussein, prisoners were regularly taunted and mistreated in their last hours. The most disturbing thing about the new video of Saddam’s execution is that is all much too reminiscent of what used to happen here.

Yes, Saddam was evil incarnate in so many ways, and few could reasonably deny that the world is better off without him. But his botched show trial and rushed execution (in the words of Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister, “an Eid gift to the Iraqi people”) was primal, tribal justice pure and simple. Shame on us all for even being involved in this morass of sectarian vengeance.

On Purim, we will joyfully celebrate the downfall of Haman, another horrible tyrant who met a similarly ignoble fate on the gallows. But the beauty of this holiday is that it comes as one brief moment of absurdist catharsis. Purim is the day we allow our deepest darkest revenge fantasies to hold sway – largely so that they cannot hold their grip upon us during the rest of the year.  In Iraq, alas, we have all been sucked into a Purim-style nightmare from which there is no discernable end in sight.

Adar has come early this year. Be very afraid…