On Capital Punishment
Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden
God is very clear on where He stands on the topic of capital punishment. Even though God commands Do Not Murder (as opposed to Do Not Kill) in the Ten Commandments, there is a long list of sins (murder among them) that God prescribes the death penalty for. Already to Noah and his sons God warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.”(Genesis 9:6)
The Rabbis however explained that in most of those cases, it is actually quite rare for the death penalty to be carried out. The guilty party needs to have been given an explicit and detailed warning before committing the sin; there needs to have been two valid witnesses to the sin and a variety of other judicial requirements. No video or circumstantial evidence suffice.
The more bloodthirsty among us may feel that this practical suspension of justice is unfair. How is it that all these sinners and murderers can roam around free and unpunished? The Talmud tells us not to worry. God has his way of inflicting the right punishment on each deserving individual, at the right time and in the right form, if the human court is unable to carry out its duty.
The more merciful among us may feel that punishment for crimes, even one as odious as murder, is unwarranted, and that the death penalty especially has no place in modern civilization.
Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 35:33 explains part of the rationale for the death penalty:
“A human society that does not regard the blood of each of its members as sacred, one that does not take up the cudgel for innocent human blood that has been spilled negates the very purpose for which the forces of earth operate.”
“The hypocrisy can be purged from the land only if the innocent blood that has been spilled, and the human being who has lost his life as a result, finds an advocate in the society that survives him and the murderer is made to atone for his deed by dying at the hands of that advocate, thus losing his own life, which he has forfeited by his crime. For since he has spilled the blood of his fellow man, his own blood no longer has a right to life; he has forfeited his own right to existence. And to tolerate the continued existence of one who knowingly and deliberately murdered a fellow man would be a travesty on the dignity of man, who was made in the image of God.”
May all murderers be brought to justice, whether earthly or divine, and may we see justice reign in the land.
On the confluence of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin that we have started this week in the Daf Yomi cycle, with Maimonides’ Laws of Sanhedrin that we are in the midst of in the Rambam Yomi cycle – both of which deal with the subject of capital punishment.