Judaism and the Death Penalty
On Wednesday, the State of Nebraska abolished the death penalty, thus becoming the 18th state which no longer exercises capital punishment. In Europe, the death penalty was by and large abolished during the 20th century. What is the Jewish approach towards capital punishment?
On the one hand, formally the death penalty is recorded in the Torah, and was exercised in antiquity. But even then, the rabbis labored hard to essentially render it null and void in their Talmudic discourses. Jewish law stipulates that in order to warrant the death penalty, a person has to commit the same major crime twice, and each time the crime perpetrated has to be seen by a least two witnesses (a person is forewarned after the first time he commits the egregious offence that should he repeat this offence again, he would likely face execution).
Secondly, and most fascinatingly, even in antiquity, some of our leading sages and scholars vehemently opposed the death penalty. Some rabbis argued that a Jewish court which sentences a person to death, even if only once in every seven years, is a wicked and cruel Beit Din (Rabbinic Court). Others went even further, stating that even a Beit Din which issues the death penalty only once every 70 years is still considered a cruel Beit Din.
Finally, Rabbi Tarfon and the first century sage Rabbi Akivah (who is one of the most towering rabbinic figures in all of Jewish history) argued: “If we were sitting in the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Rabbinic court of antiquity), then no one would ever be executed!”
The Torah states that certain offences merit the sanction of the soul becoming “karet” – namely, spiritually cut off from the Jewish People. That is, in and of itself, a devastating consequence of violating basic ethical and spiritual standards.
Wherever we happen to stand, with regard to the debate about the legitimacy and desirability of the death penalty in this country, we should all be proud to be the heirs of a distinguished tradition and civilization which always seeks to balance retribution and protection of society on the one hand, and the universal dignity and sanctity of life on the other hand.