Thursday, August 16, 2012

Capital Punishment is Mercy

I first wrote about capital punishment after the Lockerbie bomber was released from prison.
I stand by what I wrote then in this latest installment on the subject.

Parshat Re'eh

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The Torah shuns violence, values life, and has embedded in most Jewish hearts and minds through the generations that violence is not our way. The establishment of the State of Israel and the needs for vigilance and survival have changed this attitude somewhat, but even so, the Jewish people are still held to a higher standard – by others and by ourselves – and will seek diplomacy and other options before resorting to violence as a last option.
This makes the section of Devarim 13:7-12 quite troubling. In simple terms, the Torah describes a case in which an individual from your community, who may be quite close to you, chooses to act as a missionary for another god or religion, and tries to get you to worship that other god.
The Torah says, "Do not agree with him, and do not listen to him. Do not let your eyes pity him, do not show him any mercy, and do not try to cover up for him, since you must be the one to put him to death. Your hand must be the first against him to kill him, followed by the hands of the other people. Pelt him to death with stones, since he has tried to make you abandon God your Lord, who brought you out of Egypt and the House of Bondage. When all Israel hears about it, they will be afraid, and they will never again do such an evil thing among you."
Before we continue, three disclaimers are in order.
1. Since the destruction of the Temple 2000 years ago, the Jewish people do not have a system that would allow for such a sequence of "justice" to play out.
2. The Talmud (Makkot 7) discusses the propriety of a court executing capital punishment. Some felt capital punishment should be a very rare occurrence, while others felt that all the criteria necessary to obtain such a verdict would be so difficult to achieve that a court would never be able to execute someone.
3. Perhaps our contemporary society views such an approach as barbaric. After all, you're going to take someone's life because he or she has expressed an opinion about which god you should worship?
In truth, this is really a question of which sins or misdeeds can so remove a person from society that said society agrees by consensus that the death penalty is in order.
I think the most blatant hint in our case comes from the inclusion of the phrase "who brought you out of Egypt and the House of Bondage" in13:11. The verse could have easily ended with the words "tried to make you abandon God your Lord!" Mentioning Egypt is the most direct reminder that the god this person is suggesting you abandon is God who loves you, Who cares for you, Who saved you from Egypt; God Who made miracles for you, gave you the Torah and asked for allegiance in return.
This is worse than a person asking you to abandon your parents – this is The God without Whom your parents would not exist, and you would not exist.
The Torah would seem to suggest that while evil has many faces, the "friend" trying to pull you away from God embodies pure evil. In the book of Devarim, the Torah emphasizes at least ten times the need to eradicate evil from amongst the Israelite nation. It speaks of a certain level of conformity – but in all cases the vilified act is one which, at its core, either stands to undermine a civil and just society, which is partially defined by the laws that contribute heavily to the moral fabric and order that is the essence of the Torah's instruction, or is a direct affront to God.
How do we justify putting this person to death? The Torah Temimah (13:9) records a number of Talmudic and Midrashic passages that address the seeming contradiction between "Loving your neighbor," for example, and, in this case, putting him to death. If the person's deeds take him out of the category of being your neighbor, there is no contradiction – your non-neighborly-neighbor seeks your destruction. And therefore has opened himself to the same.
But it is Rabbenu Bachaye who instructs us as to how we should properly view the death penalty: "The Torah is all mercy and it comes from the Merciful One. When it tells us to take the life of one who is guilty, it never intends for us to do so in a vengeful manner. That would be the excuse were we trying to train ourselves to be cruel. But the 'revenge' is meant to be merciful: to have mercy on everyone else. This is why it says 'Don't let your eyes pity him' and 'All of Israel will hear and see and will not continue to do this any more' and 'you must eradicate evil from your midst.'"

There are organizations in Israel which exist specifically to counter missionary efforts in Israel – they can take up the debate whether missionaries who target Jews are the embodiment of evil. Perhaps Jews (or former Jews) who prey on weak Jews and try to entice them away from Judaism are the worst kind of missionaries.
But when it comes to the death penalty in general (and no, I am not advocating for missionaries to be treated that way), just as the Torah is not looking to train its adherents to become cruel, it doesn’t put much stock in the notion that "the civil society does not participate in the cruel act of capital punishment" or in those who question a society's right to rid itself of evil people. If evil is allowed to live, the Torah argues, what deters other people from committing similar evil acts?
How many evil people, particularly terrorists and murderers, have "done their time," been released, and found new victims?
Ridding the world of evildoers is not cruelty to the evildoer. It is mercy on all the rest of us, particularly potential victims, as it makes the world a safer place.

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