When Do We Choose Life?

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Rabbi Yitzhak, November/December 2010

The whole world watched closely the stunning rescue of thirty three miners in Chile as they each emerged from the depths into the embrace of family and friends and their anxiously waiting community. The task was not complete and the world would not fully breathe freely until every precious individual had safely surfaced.

How rare it is that the world pauses to consider and to feel the significance and value of individual lives. We have become so used to daily reports of bombings and bloodshed through wars that our sensitivity to the preciousness of a single life can be lost.

How stunning it was to witness the mobilization of resources from around the world all focused toward saving these thirty three miners. What a strange dissonance results when considering the simultaneous massive focus of minds and resources toward the destruction of countless lives in the wars that continue to rage in our world.

The rescue of those thirty three miners was a powerful reminder that we humans continue to have an innate compassion and desire to affirm the value of life even though many of our societal choices appear to deny that elevated aspect of our nature.

Further bringing these questions to the foreground of my mind was the remarkable visit to TBI by the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sister Helen Prejean. As she shared her thoughts and led a discussion about the death penalty, she explored the connection between spirituality and social justice.

Sister Helen is the author of Dead Man Walking, the well-known book made into an Academy Award winning movie. She is a passionate force calling for the abolition of the death penalty. This down-to-earth dynamo told her own story of awakening to the injustice and cruelty of capital punishment as she personally witnessed and extensively studied the usage of capital punishment in our country.

Sister Helen inquired about Judaism’s views on capital punishment and Rabbi Maurice and I shared some of the teachings from our tradition. In our primary text, the Torah, capital punishment is designated as the punishment for many crimes. However, through our oral tradition, the rabbis have essentially eliminated it from usage by creating extraordinary standards of evidence, not even accepting a confession, and numerous other limitations. Essentially Judaism acknowledges the natural anger and moral outrage resulting from a capital offense. It also greatly legislates against its usage, yet it remains in the law as a powerful symbolic statement of moral outrage, not as an available recourse. The concern that one innocent person’s life might be taken through human error is addressed by a powerful statement made by the great scholar Maimonides, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

Today there is significant danger that innocent people will be executed because of errors or even patterns of racism found in the criminal justice system. As of May 2009, 133 people in 26 states have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their innocence emerged. Many of these cases were discovered not because of the normal appeals process, but rather as a result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists, and the dedicated work of expert attorneys.

I intend to continue learning and examining this important issue that helps to remind us of the value of life, even as the world continues to be filled with life denying forces. It is ours to resist that denial and to affirm, however and whenever we can, the biblical imperative, “Choose Life.”

Resources for further reading and action:
Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty www.oadp.org
The Religious Action Center www.rac.org/advocacy/issues/issuedp