Hillel famously said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Was there an implied “unless they did it to you first” to this statement? Sometimes this “Golden Rule” is reiterated as “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” but how often do we subconsciously reinterpret that as “Treat others as they treat you.”
Just as famously, Ghandi proclaimed, “An eye for an eye will cause the whole world to go blind.” I was raised with these two adages side by side: treat others as you would like to be treated, even when they don’t equally respect you. It makes sense in theory and on a purely day-to-day level. If someone is rude to you, keep that smile plastered on and say, “Have a nice day!” But some days are harder than others, and we all have moments where we hear the snarky or angry responses coming out of our mouths before we can even think to stop ourselves. And if you think that’s hard, when we move out of the realm of the ordinary, it becomes even harder to maintain these beliefs.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read in the Torah, “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” but I do remember this awful realization that Ghandi’s message which I held so dear was a response to a Jewish text, a correction of my holy text. In Ghandi’s phrasing, “an eye for an eye” had nothing to do with eyes. It was a wonderfully abstract metaphor for generic passivism. In the Torah, alongside “life for life” suddenly it came alive for me. What does it mean to demand such exact retribution? It added a very personalized face to it. When it came to supporting passivism in the large and distant context from which Ghandi was speaking, the rejection of an “eye for an eye” made sense. When thinking about the direct issue of the death penalty as a punishment for murder, the question gets more emotional. When Amnesty or the Religious Action Center circulates its petitions to end the death penalty, I hem and haw about joining their crusade. I am afraid to sign, because I feel bad for the people who have to look their loved one’s murderers in the eye, but I can’t not sign, because I believe in the value of every human life and the possibility of redemption. I agree with Reform Judaism’s condemnation of the death penalty, but how could I tell Annie Le’s parents or fiancé that 44 years in prison was enough punishment for a 25 year old murderer, because “an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”
Beyond a life for a life, this week’s Torah portion also lists kidnapping and cursing’s one parents as punishable by death. Witchcraft, bestiality, and pagan worship – death. If an ox gores a person, the ox should be killed. But if the owner has been warned before about the animal’s tendency toward violence, the owner will also be killed for his negligence. Beyond this parsha, the Torah calls for the death penalty for 36 different offenses. The Reform Movement, however, has followed rabbinic interpretations that condemn the death penalty. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. If any perjury were to cause an execution, "the blood of the accused and his unborn offspring stain the perjurer forever."
The passage goes on to liken wrongful executions to Cain killing Abel, concluding that it is for this reason that God created only one human in the beginning, and here is the birth of yet another famous saying: he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind; whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.
The rabbis of the Talmud ruled that capital cases required a 23-judge court, while only three judges sat for non-capital cases (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1). Two or more eyewitnesses were required to testify to the defendant's guilt, bearing in mind that it was their hands that would, "be the first against him to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In a capital case, a one-vote majority could acquit a defendant, but could not convict. Furthermore, if there was a mere one-vote majority or if any judge was undecided, additional judges were added in pairs until the majority ruled against conviction, or until one judge in favor of conviction was persuaded to err on the side of innocence (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:5). In practice, these guidelines made applying the death penalty nearly impossible. Nearly, but not entirely, showing that the rabbis, too, had this emotional conflict with the Torah’s declaration of a “life for a life.”
In another passage, the rabbis show distaste for executions. "Said one: The Sanhedrin that puts to death one person in seven years is termed tyrannical. Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azariah says, ‘One person in seventy years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been put to death.’ Rabban Gamaliel says, ‘They would have thereby increased the shedders of blood (Mishnah Makkot 1:10).’"
While the last line indicates a belief that the death penalty, if carried out judiciously, can be a deterrent, prevailing Jewish thought in every movement has followed the previous opinions, which either oppose the death penalty outright, or allow for it only in the most extreme -- once in seventy years -- circumstances. Following this line of thinking, the major Jewish movements in the United States all have specific policy supporting either abolition of the death penalty, or a moratorium on its use.
Since 1959, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) have formally opposed the death penalty. The CCAR resolved in 1979 that "both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant" and there is no persuasive evidence "that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime." The URJ notes that: "We believe that there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime. We appeal to our congregants and to our co-religionists and to all who cherish God's mercy and love to join in efforts to eliminate this practice [of capital punishment] which lies as a stain upon civilization and our religious conscience."
For now, I tow the party line, but I continue to read this Torah passage with a furrowed brow. I pray that anyone in the position to make such a judgment call do so fairly and with the sanctity of human life in mind, and for my own peace of mind on this matter. If this Torah passage has caused your brow to similarly furrow, may G-d also grant you that peace of mind, and may our judicial system continue improve in its entirety.