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.
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.
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. Click here for further rabbinical history.
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.
CONTINUE READING: “Question — What do Jews believe about the death penalty?”, by Richard Ostling
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited photo posted at the Death Penalty Information Center website, with feature on the Tree of Life Congregation shootings.