Is the Death Penalty Kosher?

[This article is in reference to the Huffington Post article “The Jewish Precedent for a Moral Death Penalty” by Brad Hirschfield and “A Few Reflections on Capital Punishment” by Rabbi Yosef Edelstein]

Irene Lehrer Sandalow
Director of Strategy and Jewish Affairs, JCUA

Irene Lehrer Sandalow, Director of Strategy and Jewish Affairs

Capital punishment is kosher in theory, according to the Torah. But in the light of Jewish values and traditions, the morality of capital punishment should be questioned.

In the Torah portion “Noah,” after the flood, God tells Noah:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).

It is not morally wrong, in absolute terms, to put a murderer to death, however, according to leading Orthodox rabbis, the death penalty today is not practical and should not be administered.

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, zt’l, a noted American Orthodox rabbi, writes in the second volume of the Handbook of Jewish Thought:

“The system of judicial punishments could become brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere of the highest morality and piety.  When these standards declined among the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish supreme court and legislative body, voluntarily abolished this system of penalties.”

There is great concern expressed both in the legislation of the Torah, and in the sentiments of some of our great sages, regarding practical implementation of the death penalty.

It was carried out in ancient Israel, but only with great difficulty.

There is only one instance in the Torah in which someone is executed by the court.

In fact, later rabbinic tradition teaches that if the death penalty is imposed once in 70 years, the court that imposed it is a terrorist court.

While the death penalty might be accepted in the Torah as a “moral” way to punish criminals, actually imposing it today is quite contrary to being moral according to Jewish values and traditions.

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