I very much doubt that many, if any, rabbis have ever used Yom Kippur to speak about capital punishment. With the exception of the fifth and final prayer of the day – Neilah – mention is made in every Yom Kippur service of four different types of capital punishment administered by the (human) court: stoning, burning, beheading and strangulation. Given last week’s flurry of executions in neighboring Arkansas (Governor Asa Hutchinson signed orders for eight executions to take place within a time period of eleven days) perhaps it’s time to take a look at the death penalty from the perspective of Judaism.
In theory, Judaism does not shy away from discussing any number of situations where the death penalty is warranted. In theory, Judaism does not shy away from discussing how the death penalty is to be carried out. In practice, however, the death penalty occupies a totally different position amongst our people. It’s as though Jews and Judaism are of totally different philosophies concerning the death penalty. While Judaism (certainly from a Biblical and Talmudic point of view) appears to be very much in favor of capital punishment, Jews make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement it. Below are three reasons why I believe Judaism supports capital punishment in theory:
Jewish society is predicated upon justice. When HaShem confides in Abraham that He is about to destroy the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the rampant evil and the wanton wickedness, Abraham mounts an excellent argument where he confronts HaShem: “Shall the judge of the earth not do justice?” Sweeping the innocent away with the guilty is not justice. Permitting a willful murderer of an innocent individual to live out the days of his natural life is also not justice. Because Judaism values innocent life so very highly, it sees capital punishment as the highest form of justice in dealing with a murderer.
Judaism simply cannot tolerate the taking of an innocent life. To express its anger and to vent its outrage, Judaism goes to great lengths to warn the would be perpetrator or murderer what lies in store. Whether such a warning instills fear or serves as a deterrent is open to debate. In all likelihood, it does not. What such a warning does do however, is provide a catharsis for a society and culture that values and even cherishes innocent human life.
I have never been to an execution, much less served as a chaplain to the condemned prisoner, but speaking in the name of Judaism, I cannot help but feel that, regardless of the prisoner’s religious faith or lack thereof, Job 1:21 ought to be read: … “HaShem has given and HaShem has taken away.” Just as HaShem places innocent beings into this world (what could be more innocent than a newborn?), so too does HaShem (and only HaShem) have the right to take innocent human beings (those who cause no imminent physical threat to others) from this world. According to Judaism, just as Adam and Eve forfeited their world by overstepping their G-d given boundaries, so too according to Judaism has a murderer of an innocent human forfeited his or her G-d given boundaries. How Jews and non-Jews choose to understand, interpret or react to this is of course an entirely different story.
It would be interesting to observe the reactions of both the proponents, as well as the opponents of capital punishment, if a completely freak, fatal accident were to occur to a murderer who was spared the death penalty by our judicial system.