OR: The 2,000-year-old reasoning against the death penalty
Tue Jul 19, 2011 14:28
The 2,000-year-old reasoning against the death penalty holds today Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 By Guest Columnist "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed." (Genesis 9:6)
By Rabbi Daniel Isaak
Death row convicted murderer Gary Haugen has demanded an end to all appeals. If he is determined sane to make such a decision, his will become the first Oregon execution in 14 years. Twice Oregonians voted to outlaw the death penalty, and in 1981 the Oregon Supreme Court declared the state's law illegal. The penalty was re-instituted by voters in 1984. Oregon is one of 34 states that retain capital punishment.
The Bible explicitly prescribes death for both moral and religious violations: premeditated murder, kidnapping, adultery, idol worship, witchcraft, blasphemy, Sabbath violation, being a stubborn and rebellious child (!) and a great number of improper sexual liaisons. And though death remains on the books in Jewish judicial law, 2,000 years ago the rabbis of the Talmud, who were given authority to interpret God's will, relegated this ultimate punishment to theory, rather than practice. They stated their position with great clarity: "A Sanhedrin (rabbinic court) that puts a human being to death once in seven years is called destructive"; others say "even once in seventy years"; still others professed that "were it up to them none would ever have been put to death."
Revealing a basis of Jewish anxiety over the death penalty, legal scholar Maimonides in the 12th century claimed, "It is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to risk putting a single innocent person to death."
By adding countless stringencies to the rules of evidence, the rabbis formally rendered the death penalty moot. Convictions require the testimony of at least two unrelated eyewitnesses knowledgeable in the law. They must explicitly warn the accused as to the nature of the crime about to be committed as well as explain the prescribed punishment. The perpetrator would in turn need to acknowledge the warning, but claim that he intended to engage in the violation nevertheless and immediately commence performance of the crime. The court would interrogate the witnesses separately. Even the most insignificant discrepancy would render their testimony invalid. The rabbis were aware that with such requirements no court could impose the ultimate punishment.
Today we anguish over the justice of the death penalty not only because, despite safeguards, the real possibility remains of executing an innocent individual. We also understand that convicted people of color are statistically far more likely to be sentenced to death than whites, particularly if the victim is white. Further, we cannot escape the reality that the poor invariably receive an inferior defense when compared with those who can pay attorney fees.
The revulsion many of us feel about society putting a human being, no matter how depraved, to death is no less than the rabbis who sought to do God's will 2,000 years ago.
Daniel Isaak is a rabbi at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Southwest Portland.
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