In arguing against the death penalty, I must represent our Jewish teachings honestly.
The Torah does not categorically oppose capital punishment. After the flood, God instructs the children of Noah, “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Human beings must build societies governed by fairly-enforced laws. This includes legal execution for the most heinous crimes.
At the same time, Jewish tradition has been so concerned with fairness and equity in administering the death penalty, that it developed extremely stringent standards.
For a guilty verdict, two valid witnesses must first warn a person that he is liable to be executed if he carries out the act. He must next verbally acknowledge his understanding and then carry out the crime regardless! With these requirements, it is nearly impossible to get a capital conviction.
The Torah recognizes that humans are by nature imperfect, and that we are influenced by deeply-held biases. The Book of Leviticus warns us:
לֹא־תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט
לֹא־תִשָּׂא פְנֵי־דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל
בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ:
You shall not render an unfair decision:
do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich;
judge your kinsman fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)
To exercise the death penalty, we Californians have an obligation to ensure that it is done with justice and equity: without discriminating based on the location of the crime, the skin color of the victim, or the income of the accused. Unless we can rise to this responsibility, it is a punishment method that we should forego.
Two of our greatest Sages, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, worried so much that they might accidentally execute an innocent person that they famously declared: “if we had been members of the [court], no person would ever have been put to death.” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)
We have had decades to figure this out in California, without success. The time has come to acknowledge the eternal imperfection of human justice. The best way to pursue righteousness and equity is by banning the death penalty.
May we have the wisdom to always see the Divine in each other. Amen.