Monday, October 31, 2005

Death Penalty in Judaism

I recently submitted a comment to a widely read macro-blog, which is more of an online think-tank for Orthodox Jewish intellectuals. The original post to which I was commenting can be found here.

They have very high standards and review all comments to decide whether or not to publish them, so I don't know if I'll make the cut. Even though it has nothing to do with being from outside of New York, the issue raised by the other blog, and which is fundamentally similar to the story I submitted, is an issue of philosophy, with which I'm sure many Jews with modern sensibilities and Western thinking have to wrestle, so I'm posting it here (with style and grammar editing - I submitted it at about 2am).

"I understand your feelings of confusion, and I commiserate with you regarding the difficulties in reconciling Torah and Halachic rulings that conflict with personal inclinations. My example, which I took up with [a high profile rabbi and philosophical thinker with broad influence], is the application of the death penalty in Halachah. As I see it, Middah KeNegged Middah (measure for a measure) dictates that there must be a direct correlation between the guilty party's crime and his deserving of death. It is my feeling that the reason he deserves such a punishment is due to a forfeiture of the sinner/criminal's Tzelem Elokim (image of G-d, with which every person is endowed). In killing someone else, or kidnapping, enslaving, and selling another human being, he has robbed his victim of his Tzelem Elokim. In denying HaShem, either by committing 'Avodah Zarah (idolatry), Chillul Shabbas (desecration of the Sabbath, the symbol of our belief in HaShem's existence and role in the world) or various other capital sins, he has forfeited his Tzelem Elokim.

"In this way there seems to be a consistent pattern, which helps me to understand why there can be a death penalty at all, and how it can apply to other sins/crimes that don't seem quite as severe as murder or idolatry - cursing one's parents, for example, or the right to kill a Ba BeMachteres (an intruder).

"My question, however, was (and still is) why rape, a dehumanizing violation of another person's physical and spiritual essence, which utterly destroys its victim's sense of worth and humanity, carries no such punishment. In my view, a death penalty for such a crime fits very well within a system that values, and severely punishes the rejection of, not only HaShem's supremacy and dominion over the world, but also man's Divine nature and connection to HaShem.

"[The rabbi] unfortunately did not give a very satisfactory (or very memorable) answer that I can report to you here. The gist of his answer was that my underlying presumption was incorrect. But I recall being unsatisfied with his answer, and I don't remember if he offered an alternative reason for a death penalty that would encompass such a varied set of crimes. As such, this still weighs on my mind, and I thank you for giving me yet another puzzle to contemplate (although on some level I do like the explanation you were given)."

In retrospect, perhaps I should have mentioned the following facts in my original comment: The question I had asked the prominent rabbi was one that I had thought about for several years on my own, and I only had the opportunity to ask of the prominent rabbi while walking him back from a lecture he had given; I really put him on the spot by asking him that heavy of a question when he was in such a hurry; he did take a few minutes to think about it and tried to give me an answer, but I left unsatisfied; he told me that I could come to his office to discuss it further with him at another time, but I never did get that chance.