The Death Penalty Reconsidered

Beware of selective Bible-passage quoting.

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The Jewish spokesman, Nathan Diament, an attorney by training who works for the Orthodox Union, quoted extensively from the Talmud, showing that Jewish law employs procedural safeguards to limit false convictions in capital cases. As discussed in great detail in the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (particularly chapters 4 and 5), these safeguards include the requirement that two witnesses be present at trials and that judges interrogate witnesses thoroughly. Mr. Diament finished by saying that since sufficient questions have been raised about the accuracy and fairness of jurisprudence in capital cases throughout the United States, there ought to be a moratorium on the death penalty while these issues are examined. He said that because the death penalty, when properly applied, implements justice for society, it should not be abolished outright.

Conservative Movement's Views

In 1960, the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a paper by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser that advocated abolition of the death penalty. We as Conservative Jews should raise this issue again today as a contribution to the public policy debate. More than that, it would be a chance for us to demonstrate our emphasis on the legal tradition in Judaism--a careful, thoughtful, subtle tradition developed over many centuries and still evolving. It is a tradition that avoids both vague pronouncements on one hand and selective Bible quotation on the other. Many people have been executed on the testimony of one person alone or, worse, in the absence of eyewitness testimony. Although Jewish criminal law is no longer applicable in any jurisdiction, its methods and lessons have much to recommend.

I would advocate for abolition, on the grounds that the capital punishment system in too many states in America is so broken that it cannot be fixed. It is not just a question of procedural safeguards. The criminal justice system in the United States is driven by prosecutors whose main goal isto obtain convictions. Judges are being sidelined. The Jewish legal system, however, is judge-driven. The judge is supposed to be interested in obtaining justice, not in securing the conviction of the defendant. These are not always the same thing.

Because execution is irrevocable, inequities for the meantime have to be tolerated. Capital punishment should be abolished until the system can be overhauled. Only then can it correctly be called a justice system.

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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.