Question: What do Jews believe about the death penalty?

Question: What do Jews believe about the death penalty? August 7, 2023

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Jewish textual tradition on execution  is complex / Ri-Ya


There was relief last week when a unanimous Pittsburgh jury approved the death penalty for the man (not to be dignified here with a name) who in 2018 massacred eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the deadliest act of anti-Jewish violence in U.S. history.

There’s a strong aversion to capital punishment in the teaching across the branches of Judaism but, as we’ll see, this is not absolute, and Judaism’s biblical and textual tradition on this is complex.

There were mixed feelings in Pittsburgh’s historically close-knit Jewish community. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that capital punishment “was the preference of some but not all of the victim’ families” and “some local Jews openly opposed” execution. The New Light Congregation, which also worships in the Tree of Life building, said “many of our members prefer that the shooter spend the rest of his life in prison” and question feelings of “vengeance or revenge against him.”

As appeals grind away, presumably for years, the antisemitic murderer will join the 41 inmates awaiting execution at the federal prison system’s death row or “Special Confinement Unit” in Terre Haute, Indiana, which was established when Congress reinstated the federal death penalty in 1988.

A rising issue for the 2024 campaign?

Meanwhile, The Associated Press says the morality and practicality of capital punishment could become a big issue in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign for the first time since 1988. Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are both making execution central to their anti-crime messages.

And the opposite. Liberal Democrats are vexed that President Joe Biden pledged in 2020 to abolish the death penalty in federal statutes but has not done so. However, his Department of Justice currently has a moratorium in place while it conducts a thorough examination of problems with methods of killing and racial unfairness in judicial application.

Consideration of Jewish belief begins at the beginning. In the Bible’s account of human origins, God states that he will “require a reckoning for human life . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, / By man shall his blood be shed; / for in His image / did God make man.” (Genesis 9:5-6, JTS translation). In other words, each human life is so sacred that to honor it the murderer’s life shall be taken in return.

Later, the Ten Commandments declare “you shall not murder.” (Jewish translators say that’s more accurate than the familiar  King James Version’s “thou shalt not kill,” which indicates forms of death beyond murder, such as accidents or combat, and recent Christian translations agree.) Commentaries say by extention this forbids suicide and most abortions.

Making executions all but impossible

The Jewish Bible prescribes the death penalty not only for murder but numerous other infractions. But Jewish historians say that in practice it appears that executions were rarely if ever carried out. Thus the death penalty was a means to emphasize how abhorrent the sinful deeds were.

Modern-day Israel has performed only two executions. In the nation’s earliest days an executed Army officer was later exonerated. The second was the extraordinary 1962 hanging of Adolph Eichmann, who was a prime planner of the Nazis’ Holocaust campaign to exterminate Jewry.

Ancient teaching in Judaism’s Talmud included negative views of execution and made its application in murder rare or impossible by strictly requiring that two eyewitnesses testify about seing the killing and that they first tried to dissuade the perpetrator’s attack. See further rabbinical history here:

What Judaism’s different branches say

That same 2004 article in the “Tradition” journal, posted by the Advocacy Center of America’s union of Orthodox congregations, states that “the Torah does not offer a one-sided view” but “reflects the Divine nature of God’s creation in incorporating and balancing the competing values.” Among considerations are “serious questions” about the “accuracy and fairness” of capital cases and the disparate impact on racial minorities. The Orthodox conclude that the “most appropriate” response to such problems is a moratorium on executions till “appropriate reforms” are instituted.

Not surprisingly, Reform Judaism, a branch that takes the liberal side on most social and religious issues, has emphatically opposed the death penalty since 1959. A rabbinical resolution states that Jewish tradition deemed the practice “repugnant” and that there is no persuasive evidence that it “serves as a deterrent to crime.” Reform’s synagogue union has declared that “there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified.”

The Tree of Life Congregation is affiliated with Judaism’s Conservative branch, which generally falls between Reform on the left and Orthodoxy on the right. Its rabbinical body’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) ruled in 1960 that “the sanctity of life” means  “only God has the right to take life. When the state allows itself to take life it sets an example which the criminal distorts to his own ends.” A later CJLS reaffirmation of that policy called the death penalty “a needlessly bloody measure, applied inconsistently and, all too often, wielded against those wrongfully convicted.”

The Guy particularly recommends that interested readers consult this extensive study paper, which received formal and unanimous endorsement by the rabbinate’s CJLS in 2013: This text thoroughly addresses the history and contemporary discussion on the death penalty. It also rules that, despite religious objections to executiona, a believing Jew may properly  participate in the trial of a capital case as witness, judge, prosecutor, law officer or juror.

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