A Matter of Life and Death

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Rabbi Yitzhak, May/June 2014

Many years ago I joined a delegation of clergy from around the state in a meeting with Governor Kitzhaber to request that he grant a stay of execution for a man being held on Death Row. The governor made it clear in that meeting that he felt a responsibility to follow the will of the people of Oregon who had elected him and who also had voted to approve capital punishment as a practice in our state. The advice of the governor was that we work to review our public policy by engaging in discourse with those in our communities. The execution took place.

Several years later when again confronted with an impending scheduled execution, Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the Death Penalty as he could not again take upon himself the moral responsibility to determine the death of a person. His moral objection to capital punishment was the overriding determinant in his calling for the moratorium, which will continue until he leaves office in January, 2015 unless he again seeks office and is re-elected. He asked that during this moratorium we, the citizens of Oregon, engage in discussion about the policy of maintaining the death penalty.

This most serious matter must become a part of our communal conversation. We are members of both the Jewish civilization as well as members of our American civilization and our tradition has valuable wisdom to contribute to the public discourse.

What does Judaism have to say about capital punishment? Our rabbinic sages took a seemingly unquestionable imperative of Torah that calls for capital punishment for many crimes and searched to establish so many protections against the use of capital punishment that it became virtually impossible to utilize it as a punishment. They honored the Torah through allowing the Torah text to stand as a powerful reminder of the depth of seriousness that the taking of any life holds. They worked to bring G-d’s wisdom, compassion and justice into this world by making sure that we as a collective would not become takers of life. The brilliance and profound ethical sensitivities of our sages found expression in varying views. Their great debate elevated and refined the thinking of the sages who participated in the discourse. The discourse continues to this day for our Torah is a Living Torah.

Our sages took seriously the weight of allowing or disallowing capital punishment in their time and place. Their discourses in the Mishna and other rabbinic texts point to the diversity of viewpoints they held. We have the same responsibility to examine our own thinking and to participate in the shaping of public policy on this matter of life and death that is ours to decide for our time and place.

Today we must ask ourselves questions about the fairness of our system in terms of racial and economic factors, in terms of whether or not our current policy is economically feasible in light of the disproportionate funds that capital punishment drains from our underfunded justice system and above all, whether we can morally accept capital punishment as a state policy. Does it reflect our ethical values? Is our society elevated or diminished through the practice?

The questions are profoundly personal and yet it is our responsibility to engage with the questions. In a couple of weeks TBI will host an important opportunity to engage in this crucial discourse. We will host the annual meeting of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, OADP. I am very enthusiastic to say that Professor Richard Stack, the author of a recent book Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions, will be the keynote speaker. I am enthusiastic because of the value of Richard’s important contribution to the public discourse and on a very personal level, because he is my very beloved cousin.

I hope that our TBI community will take full advantage of this rare opportunity to join with citizens from around the state to engage in this discourse which in many ways defines the moral character of our society.

It truly is a matter of life and death.