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?
It is possible to pull together all sorts of talking points – pro and con – from Biblical and Rabbinic literature. The fact that both the Torah and the Talmud discuss the death penalty tells us that it was a part of our ancestors’ worldview. Even so, we can easily point to the extraordinary length the Rabbis went to in terms of considering appeals and mitigating factors before rendering handing down a death sentence.
My own take on the death penalty is that humans are best served when we place that ultimate authority in God’s hands. In our funeral liturgy as well as within our daily prayers, we acknowledge God as the [only] One who gives and takes life. Clearly, there are times when an individual’s crimes against others elicit revulsion and fear in all of us. It is also be clear that, as a society, despite our best efforts, we are absolutely unable to rehabilitate that individual. In the case of that person posing an ongoing threat to others, we can place that person outside the camp – permanently, if need be.
Too often, we read about DNA evidence which has called a person’s guilt into question – and we also sometimes learn about prosecutorial over-zealousness that leads to real injustice, to our stealing a life from someone – and our inability to restore that which we have taken away. Our tradition reminds us that God is the ultimate Judge, and that we should bring a healthy measure of humility to our less-than-perfect efforts to approximate justice in our community.