Against Capital Punishment

July 9, 2021 in Hazzan Asa Fradkin

When I was in high school, my history teacher taught us American civics, government, and all about our justice system.

One particular class sticks out in my mind. It was typical in this advanced history class, for us to participate in class discussions, debating topics of the day and also various struggles of the American democratic experiment.

That day, we debated the merits of the death penalty and whether or not a person who had committed murder deserved to be killed by the state.

It’s no secret that America’s foundation in puritanism is the basis for much of our biblically influenced society. Whether it be our system of courts, many city and town appellations,  such as Canaan, Salem and of course, Bethesda, or our currency itself, which states “In God We Trust.”

Our justice system is inarguably based on the principles laid out in the 10 Commandments and the system of courts set up in the Torah is a paradigm for our American system.

One of the most common forms of penalty in the Bible, used as a deterrent for sinful behavior, is capital punishment.

The classic source that pro death penalty advocates point to as justification, is Exodus 21:24. “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.”

Bible scholars and Rabbis alike, have understood this passage for centuries, to refer to financial restitution and not literally the vengeance suggested in the literal reading.

When I was 16, I stood on the side of the death penalty. “Perhaps those who have taken a life have given up the right to their own” I said to my teacher at the time.

There’s something about being young that makes this binary choice enticing. It feels good to be right and to be righteous. It feels good to stand up against those who are clearly evil, unredeemable and unsalvageable.

As for me, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that there’s very little in the world that is truly binary and that human beings live with fears, anxieties, nightmares, personality disorders, and unspeakable trauma that can cause them to do things that will haunt them for eternity.

I spent last Wednesday evening on the steps of the Supreme Court with my friend and colleague Cantor Michael Zoosman, protesting the death penalty, in a powerful ceremony in which Cantor Zoosman chanted the words of the Kol Nidre as a rebuke to state sponsored capital punishment.

He used this powerful text to plead for the right of all human beings, especially those condemned to death, to be pardoned, to be forgiven their trespasses, to seek forgiveness as we all do on the holiest day of the year.

Donning a Kittel and Kipah, Mike chanted in the traditional Nusach in 100 degree heat, invoking the name of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in his preamble.

I know that there will be those reading this article who vehemently disagree with such a protest. There are those of you who believe that the most severe form of punishment serves as a deterrent to the worst crimes a human being can commit.

I will save those more intricate discussions for an in person chat. But here now, I do want to claim my opposition to the death penalty, my belief, that even in the most severe circumstances, we should follow the words of Parshat Reeh. God says to us “today I put before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life “

I am proud to stand with my friend and colleague Cantor Mike Zoosman, who has founded the group “L’Chayim: Jews against the death penalty”

Consider joining them on Facebook or simply reading their material, their posts, their letters from prisoners on death row and the humanity of those who face the ultimate consequence from our government.

I look forward to continuing this conversation and continuing to learn more about the lives of those looking for forgiveness, looking for salvation and looking for clemency.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hazzan Fradkin