Torah study reveals harsh views on death penalty

Adultery. Insubordination. Sabbath non-observance.

They seem like commonplace misdeeds nowadays. But according to the Torah, those and more than 30 other actions — including bestiality, homosexuality and witchcraft — are punishable by death.

"Judaism of today has a very different face than some of what is found in the secret corners of the Torah," Rabbi Bernie Robinson told a small crowd during a lecture Nov. 8 at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. "Jewish tradition includes some pretty rough stuff."

The lecture entitled, "Biblical and Rabbinic Perspectives on the Death Penalty," provided a general overview of some of the many Jewish views on capital punishment over the years.

"If you came here looking for one clear Jewish perspective you're going to be disappointed," he told the audience, made up of guests and Kol Shofar Beit Binah students. "Whenever a Jew makes an informed decision on this issue, each of those, too, are Jewish perspectives."

Take for instance this story from the Book of Numbers:

A man, caught gathering firewood on the Sabbath, was brought before Moses and incarcerated. His sentencing came from God, who ordered the man's demise.

"All the congregation shall stone him to death," said Robinson quoting the Book, "as the Lord said unto Moses."

He added, "Yes, the Torah endorses the death penalty."

Robinson, a former Jewish chaplain at Napa State Hospital and a Kol Shofar congregant, gave two primary reasons for capital punishment's presence in the Torah.

"First, like today, it was considered a deterrent," he said. "Second, the perpetrator was deemed a serious detriment to the community because he offended God."

As exile from Israel was not commonplace and prisons were few and far between, death was a common remedy, said Robinson.

The talion, or "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" rule, in which punishment corresponded to the crime, he said, was also practiced in early biblical times.

But rabbis, said Robinson, soon found "gross inequities in the system."

"What if a man with one eye injures a man with two?" he cited as an example. "Do you take his only eye? And how do you do it without accidentally slaying him? What if he bleeds to death?"

Rabbis concluded that physical talion was impossible. And except in cases of intentional homicide, the talion was transformed into a system of monetary compensation.

The idea of repentance, however, did find its way into Jewish teachings. Quoting the biblical prophet Ezekiel, Robinson said, "There is no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but turn back from evil ways and live."

This, added Robinson, "is the Judaism we live by today."

Academic discussions of the Sanhedrin also led to modern thinking regarding the death penalty. (The name Sanhedrin applies to the higher courts of law, which, in the latter period of the Second Temple, administered justice according to Mosaic law in what was then Palestine. It also refers to a tractate of the Talmud that deals with the composition, powers and functions of the court.) Some scholars supported a restricted use of the death penalty, while others argued for its abolishment.

"Rabbi Akiva would have subverted the meaning of the Torah so severely that capital punishment would be abolished," said Robinson, referring to the talmudic scholar Akiva Ben Joseph, who lived from around 40 to 135 C.E. "That's the main peg that Jews today use in making the claim that, despite the Bible, Jews don't favor the death penalty."

Presently in Israel, continued Robinson, only two crimes can result in a death sentence, genocide or treason during wartime.

As for the United States, Robinson mentioned a 1979 rabbinical assembly of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in which capital punishment was called "a concept and practice of Jewish tradition" that is today found to be "repugnant."

He also spoke of a meeting last March in which Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he was compelled to speak against the unjust use of capital punishment.

This issue of unjust execution will be the topic of a discussion at Kol Shofar, "The Death Penalty and the Law," Tuesday, Dec. 5. It, like Robinson's lecture, will be offered by the Kol Shofar Adult Education Committee, and will feature two local attorneys, Gary Sirbu and Michael Millman. For information, call the synagogue at (415) 388-1818.