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Ask a Jew: What’s your view of the death penalty? Part 2

By Neal Schindler

What questions do you have about Judaism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below.

This part 2 of a series. Read part one.

How does your faith view the death penalty?

SPO_Ask-a-Jew-ad_042114Here’s what Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a major 20th-century Jewish thinker, had to say on the subject of Judaism and capital punishment: “[T]hroughout the Talmudic literature, this whole subject is viewed with unease, so much so that according to the rules stated in that literature the death penalty could hardly ever have been imposed.” He points out that rabbis of old could not have flatly prohibited capital punishment, since Leviticus 20 clearly authorizes it in some cases. Jacobs adds, however, that an “in theory, not practice” approach to the death penalty continued for centuries. In practice, safeguards were established so that people were rarely, if ever, put to death. When Israel came into being, “it was eventually decided to abolish capital punishment entirely except for treason committed in time of war.”

Maimonides, in his considerable wisdom, stated the following: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” This sentiment rings as true for anti-capital punishment activists today as it must have for many people during Maimonides’ era. In light of contemporary cases in which people convicted of serious crimes are later exonerated, it shouldn’t be surprising that, according to the Pew Research Center, “[a]ll of the major Jewish movements in the United States either advocate for the abolition of the death penalty or have called for at least a temporary moratorium on its use.”

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On the death penalty:

If we allow a murderer to go free (after a prison sentence), are we potentially imposing a death penalty on his next victim?

Does this make the entire question moot (a choice between executing a murderer and executing an innocent by inaction)?

Neal Schindler

We can’t prosecute thoughtcrimes. Allowing a murderer to go free doesn’t guarantee he or she will or won’t kill again. But we need to decide what just punishment looks like and then, once a person has undergone it, free them. If life in prison is the punishment, then their freedom is death, I guess. But we’re not killing them, time is.


Thank you, Neal. Very interesting. Most Jews I’ve talked to are very uncomfortable with allowing the state the right to kill. When addressing this question we do need to take extreme precautions in order to be responsible, and get and consider many complex ramifications. Reader grossly oversimplifies, on at least two counts. First, most sentencing laws would nlt allow release of a murderer after a few years, or many years. Most of those opposed to the DP are calling for Life without the possibility of parole. And many murderers can and do undergo a change, a development or at least a hormonal change that makes them no more likely to reoffend than you r I, (I hope) average citizens. Reader, do you say a person can’t change. Do you say Life without… is not effective? It is cheaper, and more humane considering the mistakes and the socially prejudiced decisions of our legal system?

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