The Death Penalty Reconsidered

Beware of selective Bible-passage quoting.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

In the closing days of his administration in 2003, outgoing IIlinois Governor George Ryan pardoned or commuted the sentences of all prisoners on the state's death row. The governor's action sparked a renewed debate about the death penalty in the United States. For Jews, this debate presents the opportunity to review and clarify the stance of Jewish law on capital punishment not only for our own information but in light of public policy discussions now underway.

One might think that the Jewish view of capital punishmentis governed by one of the verses in this week's parashah, "He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:12). However, it is not that simple. In Jewish law, one cannot form a defense simply by taking one's pick of biblical verses and ignoring others.

What Christians Believe

A good example of why we cannot do this is a panel that was sponsored in June 2001 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. On this panel, a Catholic, a Jew, an African-American Protestant, and a Southern Baptist presented their different religions' and denominations' views on the death penalty. Each spokesperson arrived at this position by citing distinct sources that supported his denomination's viewpoint.

The Catholic spokesman emphasized the development in his Church's thinking--a development away from capital punishment. He did not quote Bible, nor mention religious law per se. He did, however, cite three sources: the catechism of the Church, the statements of the current Pope, and the statements and advocacy of the US Catholic Bishops. The Church's position, he said, is that while the state has the right to impose capital punishment, it should forego that right for a variety of reasons.

The Southern Baptist spokesman, Barrett Duke, stated that his denomination favors capital punishment because the Bible supports it. Hecited as his key verse: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). Mr. Duke notably chose not to quote a different verse from the Bible: "A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses. He must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. Let the hand of the witnesses be the first to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7), because it would not have served his case to do so.

The African-American spokesman, Joseph Lowery, a minister and former associate of Martin Luther King Jr., used primarily secular points to argue against the death penalty. He quoted a verse from the Bible "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24, this week's parashah), saying that Dr. King had denounced that verse.

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Lewis Warshauer teaches topics in Judaism to adult study groups in a variety of venues. Among his interests are family dynamics in the Bible and art as interpretation of Jewish texts. He was ordained at Jewish Theological Seminary and is based in New York.