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"What If It Was Your Family?" The Death Penalty Through New Eyes

“But what if it had been your family?”

This is the question people always seem to ask when discussing the death penalty. What if YOU were in the situation where you got to decide if someone should be put to death for their crime? What if it were up to YOU how that person would be punished? Well, this week, we’ve gotten to explore this question more than we might have hoped.

Because in Judaism, we are taught “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh B’zeh,” or “All of Israel is responsible for one another. Which means that when a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in suburban Pittsburgh in 2018, it was if he was killing members of my own family. Jews around the world mourned like we had been under attack, because in reality, we had been. These were our friends and neighbors, our aunts and uncles and parents and siblings. A community of empathy as big and loving as ours feels the aftereffects together, all across the world.

Which is why it was particularly painful this week as we watched the trial of Robert Bowers, the man who killed 11 Jews as they prayed on October 27th, 2018. We watched as a human being responsible for ending the lives of almost a dozen others was sentenced to death.

Judaism has a complicated relationship with the Death Penalty. The Bible certainly makes plenty of references as to how capital punishment is to be carried out. Yet, in the rabbinic period, scholars went so far as to say that any court that sentenced someone to death once every seventy years was considered destructive (Mishnah Makhot 1). It would seem that the Torah calls for the death penalty, yet later scholars didn’t have the stomach for it. If anything, Jewish traditional texts seem to parallel our own dis-ease with the situation: we have an instinct that makes us want death as an option, but aren’t very comfortable using it.

In the modern era, the Reform Movement has made abolition of the Death Penalty a central goal for social justice. Most often Death Row inmates suffer from some of the same systematic racism and discrimination that are part of institutional abuse, and our ethical ideals strain against the notion that we get to decide who lives and who dies. Yet, in this case, I can’t help but notice a kind of indifference to the moral queasiness of Bowers’ sentencing. As a rabbi who spends every Saturday morning in synagogue, I can’t help but think that someone who were to attack my building would deserve death, and I certainly don’t feel compelled to go out on a limb to stick my neck out in his defense.

This week, we have had to confront the devastation and grief all over again of a situation that left members of our community in shambles. And with such big feelings, it would make sense for us to want to have similarly big questions about moral rights and wrongs. But the reality is that in this moment, our job isn’t to find a solution to the larger problems facing our society. That’s for someone else or for us at a different time. Because when we are creating the laws that should govern our country, we shouldn’t be swayed by the influx of feelings that are inherent on a situation that hits close to home. Instead, we want to know that smart, thoughtful, educated people are setting up the kind of structure that will allow us to focus on our grief while they look after the details.

The death penalty makes me uncomfortable. And it might even make me more uncomfortable that I don’t feel nearly as up-in-arms about it this week as I did the week prior. That’s ok. Because that’s human. That’s natural. But that doesn’t mean we should be allowed to decide policy based on the experience of those going through something hard. And that needs to be ok too.


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