Capital punishment in Indonesia…ask the Rabbi

May 4, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple has his say on the recent executions in Indonesia.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Indonesia should be ashamed of itself for executing two Australians as well as a few others. It is not that the people who were executed were lily-white. Indonesia has processes of law which led to their sentencing. No-one denies the Indonesian right to have strict laws and stern penalties. But having to resort to putting people to death is monstrous and unethical and brings no credit to those responsible.

It doesn’t help to tell us that capital punishment was part of Biblical criminal law. Those who had the responsibility for implementing this law surrounded it with so many ifs and buts that it lost its sting. One view was, “A court which put a person to death once in seven years was bloodthirsty”. Another view said, “Once in seventy years”. Two of the greatest rabbinic sages said, “Had we been members of the court no-one would ever have been put to death” (Mishnah Makkot).

This latter view was not uncontested. Its opponents said, “They (the abolitionists) would increase the shedders of blood in Israel”. But there are other ways of achieving the purpose which the Bible says is to make people “hear and fear”.

The convicted person can be punished, and the community warned, without a death penalty but by means of harsh imprisonment.

What does a death penalty say about the court? Like the person whose fate is in their hands, they are human beings. The question hanging over their heads is, “Who says your blood is redder than his?”

There is no doctrine of the infallibility of the judicial bench. It is always possible that a court can make a mistake, and once the accused is dead there is nothing that can be done. This must not be taken as accusing the Indonesian court of making a mistake, but no court can or should play God.

The ancient discussions were especially concerned with dealing with murders. In Indonesia the problem is the serious crime of drug-trafficking. In some ways it is as bad as murder because its effect is also to destroy lives.

It is not that the drug-trafficker is necessarily out for revenge or sadistic. He wants financial advantage. He will tell you that it’s not his fault that people want drugs; he claims that he is simply supplying a need. Who is he deceiving – himself? He deserves to be handled harshly and his potential victims need to be helped through a tough time.

But the death penalty doesn’t solve the problem and it is flawed in itself.


Q. Why did Jews develop such an indigestible food as cholent?

A. Cholent (pronounced tsholent) is a stew that simmers overnight on Friday in order to have hot food on Shabbat. The word may be from the French “chaud”, “warm”, or Hebrew “sheyalin”, “that which stays overnight”.

Though many people insist that cholent needs meat, it is quite feasible to have a tasty vegetarian cholent. Not everyone, however, would go as far as Rabbi Yehudah ben Barzillai of Barcelona who says in his Sefer HaIttim, “He who does not eat chamin (cholent) on Shabbat should be excommunicated. He should be removed from the community of Israel.”


Q. Why was the Torah not given to Abraham?

A. Abraham is so highly esteemed that you may well have a point. The Talmud raises a similar question in relation to Ezra. “Had Moses not preceded him,” we are told, “Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel” (Sanhedrin 21b). So if Ezra was qualified to receive the Torah, why not Abraham?

A further Talmudic passage suggests an answer. It states that for the first 2000 years of history – according to rabbinic chronology, from Adam to Abraham – the world was destined to be spiritually desolate (Sanhedrin 97a). Thus though Abraham was a great man, his environment was not ready for the Torah, and it was only due to God’s grace and not human righteousness that the world survived (Maharsha).

Moses’ generation, however, had suffered slavery, been carried out of Egypt “on eagles’ wings” (Exodus 19), and shared the birth pangs of nationhood, and they were ready for the Revelation.

Abraham had to accept that there would be no Torah in his generation, just as David had to accept that there would be no Temple in his lifetime.

Later history has had many a similar experience. Pioneering thinkers have dreamed of great things happening, but they were often ahead of their contemporaries and the dream could not come true until the times were right.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


3 Responses to “Capital punishment in Indonesia…ask the Rabbi”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    I am all for coming down hard on drug suppliers. With this in mind I find it hard to believe that rich Western countries, with powerful means, are not able to wage war more effectively on the higher echelon of those involved in marketing and trafficking drugs at the origin of production – the untouchables it seems. (While Chan and Sukumaran were seeking profit out of the misery and possible death of some, they are not in this league – also, they simply would not have seen it in this way at that time.) So, the question is, why, with all the death and grief associated with this worldwide, is more not being achieved? Perhaps going to war to protect oil interests or prop up puppet governments is more important.

    As far as these two Australians are concerned, I ask those who reason so coolly about ‘knowing the risks beforehand’ or ‘being accountable’, do you really believe one should be held accountable for the rest of their life, or die, for bad decisions made when 21 years old? The human brain isn’t even fully mature until 25 years of age. All the opinions posted are conceptual in nature, not taking into account the complex mess being involved with drugs in any way is. This comment is not made to excuse drug dealing; we can’t do anything constructive to change things by avoiding all the realities involved and hiding behind easily formed judgemental attitudes. There has to be room for people to repent and change for the better, particularly younger people – they must be given that chance. Get the big guns in Colombia, Myanmar, wherever … dismantle their huge businesses, incarcerate them. I’ll wager they’re all older than 21.

  2. Eleonora Mostert says:

    Exceptionally well said Geoff Bloch, you managed to say everything that was running through my head while reading the article. One thing not mentioned is that these young men had gone to Indonesia on two or three other occasions. And no one can tell me they missed the warning signs when leaving the country at the Airport. Or they weren’t aware of Anita Colby case. It’s so sad, they are now almost being portrayed as innocent victims and in some cases made out to be heroes. It is my opinion it is premeditated murder by the drug pushers as they are well aware of the consequences of drug addiction, they don’t care, they are only interested in their own greed. The media should shut up and stop blaming the Police or Government but put the blame where it lies with the drug pushers and dealers. We are all held accountable for our actions Rabbi Apple.

  3. Geoff Bloch says:

    While I acknowledge the compassion underlying Rabbi Raymond Apple’s article, the Rabbi makes a number of comments with which I disagree and which may not be consonant with Halacha. First, I will list some examples of his comments and then I will explain why I believe they are flawed.
    The Rabbi’s comments include –

    1. “…having to resort to putting people to death is monstrous and unethical….”

    2. “It doesn’t help to tell us that capital punishment was part of Biblical criminal law”

    3. “….no court can or should play God”

    4. “the death penalty…… doesn’t solve the problem and it is flawed in itself”

    I believe these statements are unsound for the following reasons.

    It is a foundational belief that the Torah is an objective moral code which is relevant in all times, not just in biblical times. Significantly, only one of the 613 commandments is mentioned in each of the 5 books of Moses. It is that murder is a capital crime and the murderer must be put to death by man. God does not mete out the judgment, man does. We are specifically commanded that murder, as a capital crime, must form part of our criminal law.

    That emphasises just how important it is, yet many contemporary Judeo-Christian societies have abolished murder as a capital crime, believing they are more sophisticated, more compassionate, more moral and more progressive than the Torah. As a direct consequence, many countries, sadly including Israel, show more compassion to murderers than the murderers extended to their innocent victims. This misplaced compassion devalues the sanctity of human life. It does not uphold it. It is itself unethical.

    For example, what possible right to life do the two monsters who slit the throats of the Fogel family have, when they arrogated to themselves the right to take innocent life so mercilessly, returning to murder a tiny baby after they had exited the Fogel home because they heard her cry?

    The world is awash with unspeakable barbarity taking place throughout the Middle East and northern Africa against racial and religious minorities. Were it possible to bring the perpetrators to justice, on what possible ethical basis should they be permitted to retain their own lives when they have denied their victims theirs?

    The truth is, Western society has largely been desensitised to the barbarity and cruelty of violence and has consequently lost moral clarity.

    The Sanhedrin, it is true, rarely meted out the death penalty, but it was dealing with individual crimes of passion, not with the sort of outrageous modern mass murder where the perpetrator does not even know the victim and therefore shows absolutely no respect for the sanctity of human life.

    While I do not eschew the death penalty in any individual case, it is my respectful view that where the circumstances clearly show a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life, where the identity and individuality of the victim are unimportant to the perpetrator, the death penalty is morally justified.

    Turning then to the specific case of Indonesia, I agree with the Rabbi when he states “In Indonesia the problem is the serious crime of drug-trafficking. In some ways it is as bad as murder because its effect is also to destroy lives.”

    While Chan and Sukumaran did not “pull the trigger”, they were indeed dealing with death knowing full well that deaths would be caused by their supply of heroin. I express no opinion as to whether this distinction is sufficient to take the death penalty “off the table”, but I recognise, as it would appear does the Rabbi, that some jurisdictions may well not see a sufficient distinction.

    It is difficult then, to understand why the Rabbi opines that “Indonesia should be ashamed of itself for executing (the) two Australians”.

    Geoff Bloch

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