Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Off With His Head

Capital punishment is one of the modern era’s great controversies. Does a judicial system have the right to sentence a person to death? Like most such controversial topics, similar questions and discussions may be found in the Talmud.

The best known Talmudic reference to capital punishment is found in Makot 7a: “A sanhedrin that effects an execution once in seven years is branded a 'destructive tribunal.' Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, ‘Were we members of the sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.’”

The Mishnah cited is an excellent reflection of the Jewish attitude to the death penalty. Even though the written Torah calls for execution (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed - Genesis 9:6), the oral Torah regulated the process to the point where it became almost impossible to convict someone of murder.

Capital crimes, such as murder, incest or idolatry, were usually tried by a beit din (tribunal) of 23. Conviction required a majority of at least 13. If all 23 judges voted to convict, however, the accused was acquitted because of the implausibility that not a single judge doubted the witnesses (implying that there was a conspiracy). In capital cases, the witnesses were critical since no circumstantial evidence was accepted. Therefore, not only did the witnesses need to be upright, law (Torah) abiding citizens, but they must have definitively warned the accused that the intended act was a capital offense. The testimonies of both witnesses had to match, flawlessly, and lying was, itself, a capital offense.

If conviction was virtually impossible, why bother? The reverberations of the rare cases in which an execution did actually occur were enough to dissuade others from committing the same crime. Thus, said Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel, “If we never condemned anyone to death, we might be considered guilty of promoting violence and bloodshed...[and] multiply murderers in Israel” (Maakot 7a).

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Shoshana said...

In Genesis 9:6 it is written that "He who spills human blood shall have his own blood spilled by man, for God made man with His own image." Moses himself set among the people those who would adminster justice, so that there could be peace w...ithin the populace. And Isaiah wrote in 56:1 "So says G-d, 'Maintain justice and perform equity. For my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will reveal itself.' " It is clear that, Biblically speaking, delivering the final Earthly justice to OBL is more than appropriate. As for celebrating the delivery of such justice, Solomon wrote that "When the wicked perish, there is joyful song." The Israelites sang and danced when the Egyptian army was destroyed and their freedom ensured. (To this day, that song is sung during shacharit services daily in synagogues across the globe.) There's a debate going on right now concerning whether it was appropriate for Americans to celebrate the elimination of OBL in the streets. I, personally, find nothing wrong with celebrating the diminishment of evil on this Earth by those who are righteous in their cause. It is a noble thing to celebrate the delivery of justice. To not celebrate would be to demonstrate our apathy for the evil amongst us. The argument also creates a false moral equivalency among those who celebrate a righteous delivery of justice and those who celebrate, as the Palestinians did after 9/11, the massacre of innocents. G-d gave us free will and, indeed, the ability to judge those amongst us. The Tanakh is full of examples of the necessity of such human judgement. The final judgement will, of course, go to a higher authority, but in the meantime we are supposed to conduct ourselves in the image of G-d. I don't think the taking of all human life is evil. There are times when it is necessary for the defense of person, community, or nation. Some people, especially OBL, more than deserve to lose their lives. The difference, for those who create that false equivalency with arguments that all human life, even that of evildoers, is sacred, is that when someone attacks an entire nation, murdering thousands of innocents indiscriminately, all in the name of some imperialistic, blood cult ideaology to establish a global caliphate with all peoples subject to Sharia law, they get what's coming to them. The Fogel family in Itamar, as an example, did nothing to their Muslim neighbors, who stole into their home in the dark of night and gutted three of their children and the parents. The perpetrators of that crime are also evil, not the Fogels, and to somehow believe there is any kind of equivalency between the Palestinians who celebrated the Fogel family murder with candies and pastries, and American's celebrating OBL's demise, is distasteful to me. It will take the Muslim world at large relinquishing their worship of martyrdom, and also forsaking their desire to impose their ideology globally, before there can be any real hope for peace.