The Dialectic of Capital Punishment
Yet, the Bible still did call upon human beings to judge, to create a court system and police society. To this effect, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a president of the Sanhedrin, challenged the position of Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva, stating that they would increase the shedding of blood in Israel. It may be true - and no doubt it absolutely is - that God may be able to perform a task, undertaken by a human being, in an incomparably better way. In creating human beings, the perfect performance of a task, though, was not God's intention. He wished for humanity to grow, improve the self and the world, and thereby strive to emulate Him and bring Him into this world. To accomplish this goal, human beings must face the challenges that are presented in this world and respond to them as best they can. Society demands judgments and, despite our limitations, this is still a necessity.
How can we judge another human being? Who are we to assume such certitude? These questions are even more emphatic when one considers a penalty of death. Yet, in the interest of society, how can we not judge? How can we risk withholding the lesson of the severity of the consequences of an action by never carrying out the punishment that indicates this severity?
There is a tension between the frailty of the individual, both offender and judge, and the needs of society. The ongoing dialectic that is found within Jewish thought regarding capital punishment, ultimately, without taint, transmits this lesson.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem in 1980. He is the Founding Director of Nishma, an international Torah research, resource, and educational endeavor. Rabbi Hecht holds degrees in law, psychology, and business and serves on the Rabbinical Advisory Board of Koshertube and as the Rabbinical Advisor to Yad HaChazakah-JDEC. He also blogs at http://nishmablog.blogspot.com. Rabbi Hecht lives in Toronto, Ontario.