TEEmail_September 2014_Lawrence

This Week In Torah

Parshat N’tzavim-Vayeilech: To life

On our most joyous occasions, it is not uncommon for Jews to sound out a rousing “l’chayim!” before taking a sip of wine. Thanks to “Fiddler on the Roof,” it has become one of the most common phrases that Americans associate with Jews. As Moses gives his final address to the Jewish people in this week’s parshah, he instructs:

“See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.  For I command you this day, to love the Lord your G-d, to walk in [G-d’s] ways, and to keep [G-d’s] commandments, [G-d’s]  laws, and [G-d’s]  rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your G-d may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess. . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life. . .”[1]

I recently read an article in Al Jazeera which questioned why there was a sudden spike of executions in Saudi Arabia. Multiple human rights groups had voiced their disapproval, and some said that the recent uptick was to bring the number of executions to their annual goal of 79 after conducting no executions during the holy month of Ramadan.[2] I share the same viewpoint as the human rights groups that were mentioned in the article – how could a civilized society sanction legal killings?

To attempt to answer this question, we don’t have to look outside of our own borders. Since 1976, when the United States brought back the death penalty, our judicial system has legally killed 1387 people, including most recently Earl Ringo Jr. who died on September 10th in Missouri. A majority of states (32) including Ohio use the death penalty along with the U.S. government and military. There are an estimated 3,070 people on death row, and the 28 who have been killed this year thus far spent between 10 and 30 years in prison before receiving a lethal injecti

In my previous d’var torah, I voiced my outrage against the racial discrimination that is imbedded in our judicial system, and the death penalty conforms to that standard. While currently there are nearly equal numbers of black and white inmates on death row, more than 75% of the murders that resulted in death sentences since 1976 had white victims.[3] How appalling it is that our society uses skin color to help determine who lives and who dies. This has been further backed up by a recent study out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln which demonstrated that white mock jurors in California were more likely to sentence a poor person or a Mexican-American to death than an alternative sentence. However, this correlation wasn’t found in Latino mock jurors.[4] As Richard Stack describes in his book Grave Injustice, there are multiple examples of cases where people have been wrongfully sentenced to death, and once their sentences were carried out in full, they couldn’t be released.[5]

The primary reasoning advocates have given for the death penalty is that it deters people from committing murder. However, two fairly recent studies (one in 1975 and the other from 1990’s to early 2000’s) are conflicted as to whether or not the death penalty fulfils this purpose. In Jeffery Fagan’s report Death and Deterrence Redux from 2005, several authors made claims such as “each execution results in, on average, three fewer murders. . .” or “as a result of the unofficial moratorium on executions during most of 1996 and early 1997, the citizens of Texas experienced a net 90 additional innocent lives lost to homicide.” In contrast, critics of this report commented that “they fail to distinguish among different types of homicide,” that the data are “thin” since there are so few executions, and that the analysis was “chiefly done by economists who generally believe that if the cost of an activity rises, the amount of activity will drop.”[6] I feel that the critiques against the report are valid and poke many holes in the argument for the death penalty.

As was mentioned earlier, this is an international issue. According to Amnesty International, 778 executions were carried out in 22 countries in 2013, with the U.S. ranking 6th in the world for its number of legalized killings. It is important to note that the number of deaths doesn’t take into account the presumed thousands of fatalities from China’s judicial system, but once again China has refused to give Amnesty International information on its use of the death penalty. An infographic regarding last year’s executions produced by Amnesty International can be found here.[7]

We as Jews understand the importance of life. We are aware that “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”[8] Our Rabbis since the time of the Talmud have taught us that “. . . a person in place of a person, an eye in place of an eye, a tooth in place of a tooth, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot. . .”[9] does not mean that we should commit violence against others. We must remember what G-d said to Moses on Mount Sinai – “You shall not kill.”[10] We have seen what happens when people believe they have the right to end someone’s life. As such, it is critical that we remind ourselves that every person regardless of where they may stand in our society is made “in the image of G-d.”[11]

For more information, check out the following resources:

  1. oThis website is filled with tons of information regarding the death penalty in the U.S. and has lots of additional resources such as books, editorials, law reviews and multimedia.
  • From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State, edited by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat
  • A Life for a Life: The American Debate over the Death Penalty by Michael Dow Burkhead

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור‫, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה

lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena

“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16


[1] Deut 30:15-19  Translation, JPS 1985

[2] What’s behind the spike in Saudi beheadings? (2014, September 2). Al Jazeera. Retrieved September 8, 2014, from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/08/what-behind-spike-saudi-beheadings-20148247123955103.html

[3] (2009, January 1). Retrieved September 8, 2014, from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

[4] Reed, L. (2014, September 1). UNL study examines racial bias in death-penalty decisions. UNL Today. Retrieved September 10, 2014, from http://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/unltoday/article/unl-study-examines-racial-bias-in-death-penalty-decisions/

[5] Stack, R. (2013). Grave injustice: Unearthing wrongful executions. Potomac Books.

[6] Burkhead, M. (2009). The Question of Deterrence. In A life for a life: The American debate over the death penalty (pp. 74-76). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland &.

[7] Haddou, L. (2014, March 27). Death penalty statistics 2013: Country by country. The Guardian. Retrieved September 10, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2014/mar/27/death-penalty-statistics-2013-by-country

[8] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9

[9] Exodus 21:23-24

[10] Exodus 20:13

[11] Genesis 1:27


Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor Richard Lawrence