One death row inmate will die in South Dakota, two days before Yom Kippur, on Oct. 7.
There is also the continuing possibility that a Georgia death row inmate, Troy Anthony Davis, could be executed this month, despite circumstances in his case, which raise doubt about his guilt.
In and after the periods of the First and Second Temples the Jewish people seldom, if ever, carried out executions. The Torah’s long lists of capital crimes covered such behaviors as blasphemy and working on the Sabbath, but the preconditions in the Torah and further restrictions in the Talmud regarding imposing the death penalty made applying it virtually impossible. Jewish sages such as Rabbi Akiba believed that only God had the right to take a life. Because after the fall of the second Temple the Jewish people were not self-governing for nearly 2,000 years, they lacked the authority to impose capital punishment until the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Israel has imposed the death penalty only once, in the 1962 execution of Adolf Eichmann for “crimes against the Jewish people” and “causing the killing of millions of Jews.” Israel’s death penalty law has been limited in practice to crimes for which Eichmann was executed. It has not been used before or since 1962.
The Jewish religion teaches that there are consequences for sin, and punishments for crime. Such punishments, as outlined in the Torah, must fulfill three goals: To assist an individual in learning proper behavior; to protect the community by deterring crime; and to extract retribution.
As practiced, Jewish religious teachings discouraged vengeance as a means for punishment. In a Yom Kippur sermon opposing the death penalty, Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein of New York’s Central Synagogue noted, “Our tradition turned us aside from indulging in the instinct for revenge.”
Sadly, our nation’s acceptance of capital punishment reflects this “instinct for revenge,” although it does not deter capital crimes. People murder without fear of being caught and executed.
Not only is the death penalty ineffective, but it is also unfair and arbitrary. The location within a state where a crime occurs can make a life or death difference, with the death penalty being sought for less serious crimes in one county and a life sentence being sought for more serious crimes in another.
The instinct for revenge has all too frequently resulted in some innocent people being sentenced to death. The reasons range from poor legal representation and lack of access to DNA testing, to government misconduct, such as prosecutors withholding evidence which could point to inmates’ innocence, and mistakes by lay and “expert” witnesses. Since 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld new death penalty laws, 130 men and women have been released from death row when their convictions were overturned – some of whom were literally minutes away from execution.
There is racial bias in the application of death sentences. When other facts about the crime and the offender are controlled for, studies show that people are far more likely to get the death penalty for killing a white person than for killing a person of color.
As Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls in a month rife with executions, perhaps the United States should pause to determine how to atone for implementing its broken system of capital punishment, a system that is merely an expression of the instinct for revenge. As a nation, we could begin this process of atonement by repealing the death penalty. We could atone by replacing the death penalty with alternative punishments for capital offenses, such as long prison sentences, or life without parole. We could atone by having our courts retry cases in which the guilt of the defendants is in serious doubt, such as Troy Anthony Davis’ case.
These actions of atonement won’t restore the lives of innocent people who were put to death, or heal their families. It won’t restore the millions of taxpayer dollars misspent on a flawed death penalty system. But it will lead our nation away from a state-sponsored system of revenge. To paraphrase what Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and death penalty opponent Elie Wiesel has said, we would no longer be agents of the Angel of Death.
(Marshall Dayan is a former chair of the Board of Directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a board member of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN). Ronald J. Tabak is the president of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, and an organizer of Central Synagogue’s Death Penalty Shabbaton in 2001.)