21st-century Judaism should reject the death penalty
Let there be no doubt: Traditional Jewish law does indeed allow for capital punishment, albeit with prodigious safeguards. Rabbi Danny Schiff adroitly outlines the rabbinic arguments that reflect this reality in his excellent opinion piece, “Judaism does not reject the death penalty” (May 12).
Though I am an ordained cantor and a former Jewish prison chaplain, I am not a rabbi, and as such I do not claim to have the same level of expertise in my knowledge of Jewish law. I do, however, agree with Pittsburgh’s Jacobo Bielak in his response to Rabbi Schiff, “Jewish law prohibits imposition of the death penalty if it does not deter” (May 19). Just as there is no doubt that traditional Jewish law allows for the death penalty, there is also no doubt that meta-studies show that when it comes to deterrence, there is no demonstrable link between the presence or absence of the death penalty and murder rates. For this reason alone, most traditional Jewish arguments for the death penalty no longer apply.
But there is more that the Jewish world must consider in the wake of the Holocaust and the events of the 20th century. Many of the members of the Facebook group I co-founded, “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” are descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors. For many L’chaim! members, the shadow of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to their firm rejection of the death penalty in all cases.
The most common form of execution used by the U.S. federal government and multiple states is lethal injection, which is a direct Nazi legacy, first implemented by the Third Reich as part of its protocol used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That program was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler. If this were not enough, across the U.S., more states are erecting gas chambers, including one in Arizona that uses Zyklon B, the same lethal gas used in Auschwitz. No Jewish argument about the death penalty in the 21st century should ignore these facts.
Regarding Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, Rabbi Schiff is correct that the rabbis did not object. Many other Jewish leaders did, however, vociferously protest. These included renowned Hebrew University philosophers Samuel Hugo Bergman and Nathan Rotenstreich, scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, who called the execution a great “mistake.” When Elie Wiesel was asked about his feelings on capital punishment, he resolutely stated, “Death is not the answer.” On this, Wiesel made no exception, stating: “I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”
In the wake of the Holocaust and the unparalleled horrors of the 20th century, 70% of the nations of the world have recognized the inviolability of the human right of life and have abolished the death penalty. Judaism, directly targeted by that unparalleled conflagration, must reflect this evolution.
Cantor Michael Zoosman
College Park, Maryland
Death penalty also harms the executioners
Aside from the question of the ethics of capital punishment, I wish people would inform themselves of the proven, lasting harm done to those tasked with killing prisoners who receive the death penalty. It is rarely even mentioned in discussions of the death penalty, as if the executions somehow just happen, rather than being carried out by fellow human beings. Reading about how the executioners are haunted by their deeds further strengthened my own opposition to capital punishment.