Is imposition of the death penalty a political/partisan matter or a religious/moral matter? Why is the death penalty largely being carried out in the South? Should Tennessee abolish the death penalty?
We all know that the death penalty is mentioned in the Bible on numerous occasions. However, the Talmud, the ancient Rabbinic writings, record that a court which administered the death penalty once in 7 years, some say once in 70 years, was considered a harsh court. The death penalty is a matter of last resort. It needs to be used sparingly. If since 1976, Tennessee has executed only 7 people, that sounds about right. In that same time, Texas has executed 481. Need I say that it would not necessarily have rabbinic approval?
Additionally, the premise of a society which carries out the most severe penalty in a state’s arsenal must be that we have an equitable society and court system. The authority of a court rests on the concept in Psalm 92, “G-d stands in the midst of the divine assembly, in the midst of the judges shall He judge.” Or, as Moses says to the judges (Deut. 1:17), “Judgement is for G-d.” If G-d sits among the judges, meaning that we have equitable societies, that we mete out justice with a sense of fairness, with a fear of heaven, or at least a sense of moral trepidation, then surely G-d stands in their midst. If judges are qualified and chosen in fair way, there is hope that G-d stands in their midst. If we find that only the poor die young, then perhaps it is not only our death penalty we need to re-examine but we need to take a deeper look at our entire societal structure.
There is a place for a death penalty. It reminds us of the gravity of certain crimes. Society should have red lines that cannot be crossed. However, the punishment must be meted out with extreme care, must be carried out very rarely, and we have to see to it that it is not just the fate of the poor.