Beth Kissileff on the Jewish Answer to How to Punish the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter

People hold candles as they gather for a vigil in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The delegation from the Department of Justice — two federal attorneys and a social worker — had come to discuss the trial of the man charged with murdering 11 Jews in our synagogue on Oct. 27. They wanted to educate us about our rights, as victims of a crime, to be apprised of the progress of the defendant’s arraignment, trial and sentencing.

Instead, they got a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.

“Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death, it’s true,” my husband said. “But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” Three of our congregants were killed and eight other Jews from two other synagogues were murdered that day also.

The DOJ delegation had been sent to speak with us as a survivor and the relative of a survivor of the horrific hate crime at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. My husband, Jonathan Perlman, is the rabbi of the New Light congregation, which had been meeting at Tree of Life on Oct. 27 when the shooter arrived. My husband explained the rabbinic idea that those guilty of crimes deserving capital punishment should be put to death, but only by God.

The Talmudic text Sanhedrin 37b discusses the possible ways for these deaths to come about: falling from a roof, being trampled by a wild beast, falling into a fire, being bitten by a serpent, being attacked by brigands, being drowned or being suffocated.

There are of course modern corollaries to these awful and heaven-sent demises. As Sam Shonkoff, a professor of Judaism at Oberlin College, explains: “The rabbis effectively abolish capital punishment, primarily on the grounds that human justice systems are fallible and that executing wrongly convicted individuals is unacceptable. The death penalty should be left in the hands of God, so to speak.”

A Pittsburgh police officer patrols around the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and Stars of David in Pittsburgh on Oct. 28, 2018, in remembrance of those killed and injured the day before when a shooter opened fire during services at the synagogue. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It is overwhelmingly clear that the Oct. 27 shooter is guilty. There are witnesses. There is physical evidence. There are his own written expressions of his desires to commit the crimes. Even people who believe the death penalty is wrong might be excused for thinking an exception should be made for such a heinous case.

But if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions? The third-century compilation of Jewish law, the Mishna, states categorically in Sanhedrin 4:5, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.”

Aside from Jewish teaching, current research points to the fact that the death penalty does more harm than good. Evidence shows it doesn’t help the families of murder victims come to any “closure.” In fact, according to PBS, a 2012 study found that families in one study in Minnesota were able to move on sooner because their loved ones’ killers were sentenced to life without parole rather than having the experience of being retraumatized by having to be a part of the trials in the multiple appeals that often precede an execution.

As one victim quoted in a recent Psychology Today article said, “Healing is a process, not an event.”

Another study, by law professor Lynne Henderson, found that “many crime victims have reported that the endless repetition of their tragic stories, the formal legal rules, and the years and years between appeals only serve to increase stress and delay healing.”

It is also more expensive, according to one nonpartisan organization, for governments to conduct multiple trials and years of appeals for those on death row than it is to lock murderers up for life without parole.

As for deterring crime, Stanford law professor John Donohue argues unequivocably, “there is not the slightest credible statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the rate of homicide.”

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Source: Religion News Service