Judaism has traditionally been of two minds about capital punishment. It exists in Jewish law but has rarely been used and is strongly discouraged.
The Torah and other texts of rabbinical Judaism say it’s okay, but under limited circumstances. In the wake of Saturday’s fatal shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue, state and federal prosecutors plan to move forward with capital murder charges against suspect Robert Bowers.
Federal death sentences are relatively rare, and most death-penalty activity is carried out at the state or local level. There have been only three executions since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
Many would say that Bowers, 46, who police say left 11 dead and many others wounded, would deserve the death penalty if convicted of the crime. But not all rabbis from the three major Jewish movements agree.
The Torah covers capital crimes ranging from murder to profaning the sabbath; there’s a section in which a man was put to death for gathering wood on Shabbat.
But Jewish law doesn’t start and stop with the Torah’s text.
Like the U.S. criminal justice system, the Torah draws a distinction between intentional homicide and non-intentional homicide, instructing that capital punishment is appropriate only for the former.
The text creates a set of Jewish evidentiary standards to prove that the accused truly intended to commit murder.
Capital cases were once heard by a Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin, made up of either 23 or 70 rabbis. Unanimous verdicts were forbidden, for someone always needed to speak on behalf of the accused. Although the tribunal typically rendered a verdict when there was a margin of one vote, capital cases required a majority of plus-two.
The tribunal could not impose a death sentence unless and until it heard from two eyewitnesses. Both needed to see each other at the time of the offense and have warned the assailant of the consequences of his action. Both also needed to hear the perpetrator’s verbal assent.
Most Jewish movements oppose capital punishment, some categorically and some because they fear it’s not being meted out fairly — that there could be errors in the justice system
Although many rabbis soft-pedal those positions when an individual commits a horrific act, the proper religious response, they say, is neither to take another person’s life nor decide for the state to do so. Even the synagogue gunman, according to them, does not deserve the death penalty.
Barbara Weinstein, associate director of the Religious Action Center, an advocacy arm of Reform Judaism, said the movement opposes the state’s use of the death penalty as a matter of principle.
“It’s hard to find words to capture the pain felt across the Jewish community, but as broken as our hearts are, we continue to believe there are no crimes where the taking of a human life is justified,” she said.
Yet, she added, the gunman should still be held accountable.
According to Shmuly Yanklowitz, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and founder of a progressive-minded Orthodox rabbinical association, the Orthodox movement “is certainly in opposition toward capital punishment, with exception.”
But, he said, “when dealing with a gentile society and government, we’re no longer dealing formally with the Jewish legal system and largely move from law to ethics. There, they become somewhat intertwined with our personal politics. It breaks down more on party lines than denomination lines.”
Moral concerns have also led the movements to worry that the U.S. justice system applies punishments unequally.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, the premier international membership organization of Conservative rabbis, similarly told The Washington Post that for decades, the organization maintained the committee on Jewish laws and standards, which debates how to apply law and tradition in an evolving contemporary society. A more recent opinion shifted its stance to allow sitting on a jury where the death penalty is being debated.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi and member of the committee, reiterated: “The death penalty has not existed as a judicially appropriate outcome for more than 2,000 years. It is bad policy. In modern states, we shouldn’t put people to death unless it’s the only way to prevent them from causing more crime,” he said.
Kalmanofsky highlights the complex relationship Jews have with the idea of capital punishment through the execution of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking member of Nazi leadership responsible for Jewish extermination camps. Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962, is the only person that the state of Israel has ever executed judicially.
“As a Jew, it’s hard to argue that Eichmann didn’t deserve execution. Killing Nazis in the wake of the Holocaust makes for rough justice,” Kalmanofsky said, yet Eichmann no longer presented a threat of future crime.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told The Washington Post that in light of the horror committed against his congregation in Pittsburgh, he was not yet ready to talk about suspect Bowers, adding that “in the Conservative movement, each rabbi will make a decision in an individual congregation.”
In one sense, that this happened in the open and diverse community of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was shocking, but in another sense, this surprises few. U.S. Jews have always been aware that anti-Semitism is a part of Western civilization, Yanklowitz said.
“When you have a moment to step back, you’ll have difficulty finding mainstream Jewish rabbis endorsing death,” Yanklowitz said.
This story has been updated to clarify the breadth of Jewish views on the death penalty.