The death penalty: Masorti has its say

May 8, 2015 by J-Wire News Service
Read on for article

Three Masorti rabbis have issued a joint statement on how the recent executions in Indonesia impact on Judaism stating that no society has the right “to terminate a life before its time”.

Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue’s Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, Melbourne’s Kehilat Nitzan’s Rabbi Adam Stein and visiting Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen full statement:

“With the execution by firing squad on Wednesday last week, many people in Australia have asked what position Judaism should take on this matter. The Masorti Beit Din has considered the question and offers the following opinion.

The Talmud teaches (Makkot 1:10):

Rabbi Adam Stein

Rabbi Adam Stein

A Sanhedrin that executed [more than] one person in a week is called a “murderous” [court]. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah states: [more than] one person in 70 years [would be denoted as a murderous court]. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state: “If we had been members of the Sanhedrin, no defendant would ever have been executed.”

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid executions, it does make it extremely difficult for them to be carried. As the Masorti scholar, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs has noted:

“Faced with the clear biblical injunctions, the Rabbis mentioned could not simply have said that capital punishment was wrong. After all, the Bible states that it is right and has to be imposed on the guilty. But the statement seems to imply that the Rabbis welcomed the development by which the Sanhedrin no longer functioned with the power to impose the death penalty.”

The Masorti movement went on record in 1960 as opposing the death penalty[2]:

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins

The Talmud ruled out the admissibility of circumstantial evidence in cases which involved a capital crime. Two witnesses were required to testify that they saw the action with their own eyes. A man could not be found guilty of a capital crime through his own confession or through the testimony of immediate members of his family. The rabbis demanded a condition of cool premeditation in the act of crime before they would sanction the death penalty; the specific test on which they insisted was that the criminal be warned prior to the crime, and that the criminal indicate by responding to the warning, that he is fully aware of his deed, but that he is determined to go through with it. In effect this did away with the application of the death penalty. The rabbis were aware of this, and they declared openly that they found capital punishment repugnant to them… There is another reason which argues for the abolition of capital punishment. It is the fact of human fallibility. Too often we learn of people who were convicted of crimes and only later are new facts uncovered by which their innocence is established. The doors of the jail can be opened, in such cases we can partially undo the injustice. But the dead cannot be brought back to life again. We regard all forms of capital punishment as barbaric and obsolete.

While the Bible established the principle of the Death Penalty, the Talmud [Makkot 7A] established stringent conditions including the need to warn the person about the consequences of the act and the requirement that there be two competent witnesses to the act.

What about those who argue that they were just acting within the Law of the Land?

It is 70 years almost to the day since the cessation of World War II. Nazi Germany passed legislation making legal the murder of people. Those performing such acts argued that they were just following orders. The principles established at the Nuremburg Trials rejected that argument. Jews who were victims of such rules between 1942 and 1945 following the Wansee Conference should be the first to reject any government’s justification of taking life.

The Beit Din recognizes that there are a number of countries with state sanctioned executions today including a number of states in the United States of America; the People’s Republic of China; and a number of other countries in the Asian continent and the Arab world. We believe the Talmudic adage “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” [Sanhedrin 4:9] and that no society has the right to terminate a life before its time.



7 Responses to “The death penalty: Masorti has its say”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    All sorts of facts have been left out of this discussion, including those mentioned by Lynne Newington. There are degrees of culpability to be considered in relation to murder, and it becomes amorphous when considering the possible deaths relating to many who use the drugs sold to them.

    That the AFP could have arrested Chan and Sukumaran in Australia and brought them to justice here is an important factor to consider – they were only 21 and 24 at the time (obviously stupid, reckless and only capable of thinking of themselves, but that’s another story), which in this particular case does require consideration. That we in Australia have a terrible and ineffective system for dealing with drug addiction and all its dreadful accoutrements, is another. We fill our gaols with addicts, criminalise sickness, while the really evil perpetrators are untouched. Our politicians are too weak to take different action through new legislation, afraid of community backlash (and the community in general are judgemental and baying for revenge), and ignoring recommendations of special commissions convened to sit, assess, reflect and advise on the matter. Switzerland and Portugal are two countries who deal differently with the situation, having legalised heroin use, for example; it’s regulated, monitored, and has resulted in destroying much of the black market, reducing crime, and even reducing heroin use as well as death by drug use. Perhaps we should be concentrating on that instead of getting the big guns out for people who make hideous mistakes when young.

    When so easily speaking of the death penalty for murder, as Raymond does, let’s remember that some court decisions as to ‘guilty’ have been incorrect. One case that springs to mind is that of baby Azaria Chamberlain, where the mother, Lindy, spent three years in gaol after being convicted of killing her. Turns out she didn’t do it. Too bad if the death penalty had applied there.

  2. Eleonora Mostert says:

    OK learned Rabbi’s. On leaving the country there is a warning posted,and on entering the country they were warned so your requirement of the person who wishes to commit a crime has been covered. They were warned with the very public story of Schappelle Corby and her famous surfboard. The list goes on. The question should be “If this country finds it fit to execute drug smugglers, why haven’t they executed those who bombed the night WHERE hundreds were murdered. Why was there no mention of this when the Lawyers and our Government petitioned for these people?

  3. Lynne Newington says:

    No mention here of the fact the Australians executed recently were handed over on a silver platter to a country where the death penalty is mandatory.
    There’s enough on record and recently rehashed on this particular subject.
    A father was betrayed ten years ago end of story.

  4. Raymond says:

    It is difficult to fathom why mercy should be gifted to those who denied it to their victims. That said by Geoff Bloch says it all.
    And I for one am for the death penalty for those who commit terrorist attacks, Rape, Murder, and last but not least Pedophilia. The last in the list for the reason they have taken the innocence of a child or children.

  5. Geoff Bloch says:

    According to the learned Rabbis, Israel ought not to have executed Adolph Eichmann yemach shmo, because he was not given the warnings that the halacha strictly requires. This is the logical but morally bankrupt conclusion to draw from their arguments.

    The Sanhedrin was dealing with individual crimes of passion, not with modern terrorist mass murder we are witnessing.

    Their closing statement that “Jews who were victims ….. between 1942 and 1945 following the Wansee Conference should be the first to reject any government’s justification of taking life” unfortunately demonstrates a complete lack of moral clarity.

    It is difficult to fathom why mercy should be gifted to those who denied it to their victims.

    I couldn’t agree more with Rabbi Woolstone.

  6. Rabbi Pinchos Woolstone says:

    I believe that there are major Poskim who would sanction the death penalty today for heinous crimes against humanity such as genocide.
    There would be dissenting voices from equally esteemed Posekim.
    There are ample Biblical, Talmudic and Halachic sources to give both positions validity.

  7. Avigael says:

    It also needs to be recognised that life in the womb also needs to be protected. You cant scream ‘no death penalty’ and then support abortion also.

    In all legal issues, halachic or civil, there are always exceptions to the rule for good reason. Seriel murderers come to mind where it is known the person is insane and will not rehabilitate. To remove this is foolish.

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.