Human rights groups and politicians are mobilizing against planned executions of death row inmates slated to begin in December, following an announcement by the Department of Justice last week to break a 16-year moratorium of the practice.
In Judaism, the earliest holy books document the practice of capital punishment, yet, in time, protections were built up against it. Local rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum voice tradition’s ambivalence or opposition over putting the guilty to death.
“The Reform movement is completely opposed to the death penalty,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, of Temple Rodef Shalom in McLean. “To be fair, it’s not against Jewish law — those people who are going say you can find the death penalty in the Torah, they are absolutely correct. But you might also know that later Jewish law did everything that it possibly could to ever prevent that from happening.”
“The Talmud teaches that capital punishment should exist in theory but not in practice,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation.
Adds Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue in Bethesda, “The Talmud largely undoes the Bible’s capital punishment system,” he said, “over and over erring on the side of exoneration for those suspected of capital crimes.”
Dobb said problems with the capital punishment system — disproportionately executing minorities and the disabled and instances of innocent people sent to death — can also be informed by Jewish texts, that an imperfect system is unjust.
“Deuteronomy [16:18] says tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you pursue — which [medieval commentator] Rashi takes to mean that both the ends and the means must be just — our system of capital punishment is neither.”
Efforts are already underway to counter the DOJ’s pursuits of execution, with the American Civil Liberties Union saying it will take the Trump administration to court and “challenge this move” and, in Congress, Reps. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.) and Justin Amash (I-Mich.) introducing a bill to prohibit the federal death penalty.
The death penalty is legal in 29 states, although three states — Oregon, Pennsylvania and California have a moratorium on the practice — according to ProCon.org, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia outlawed capital punishment.
Attorney General William Barr, in announcing the resumption of the death penalty, said the five inmates slated for executions have “exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies, and currently no legal impediments prevent their executions.” Their crimes include grisly murders of vulnerable victims, including children, mothers and the elderly.
Rabbi Charles Arian, of Kehilat Shalom in Montgomery Village, a Conservative congregation, said that impossibly high standards of evidence imposed by Jewish law for the death sentence are meant to protect against the punishment being meted out for seemingly minor infractions.
“Certainly the Bible itself has capital punishment for any number of crimes, including blasphemy, violation of Shabbat, et cetera. I’m sure that nobody in American society would advocate that,” Arian said.
The standards of evidence included multiple witnesses, warning the perpetrator before the crime takes place, and receiving acknowledgment that such actions carry the weight of the death sentence, to name a few, he said.
“Factoring Jewish values into public policy is not so simple,” Rabbi Arian continued. “I think that the Jewish community will, by and large, oppose this because there are so many wrongful convictions in our society that it’s impossible to achieve this kind of certainty.”
R.S. Kelly is a Washington-area writer.