GOOD FOR YOU
Many public policy issues have placed 20th century western culture at odds with traditional behaviors and beliefs. Often these conflicts are due to the contemporary thinker believing that he is more developed, experienced, open-minded, and compassionate than his predecessors.
Many public policy issues have placed 20th century western culture at odds with traditional behaviors and beliefs. Often these conflicts are due to the contemporary thinker believing that he is more developed, experienced, open-minded, and compassionate than his predecessors. Parshat Shoftim deals with one of those high-profile issues - the death penalty.
We are given the Jewish perspective, and are also forewarned by one of the great biblical commentators of the Middle Ages, not to fall into the above-mentioned trap. The Torah portion discusses a situation when a man kills another man intentionally. The murderer is sentenced to death when the numerous requirements for testimony are met and he is convicted in a court of law. The Torah (Deuteronomy 19:13) specifically warns the Children of Israel not to exhibit inordinate pity on the murderer, by sparing his life or the like. It is extremely unusual that the Torah should clearly state a law and then immediately warn the Children of Israel not to violate that commandment. There was so much concern regarding the potential for lax enforcement of this commandment (to implement the death penalty) that the Torah continues to ascribe a blessing to the community for "avenging the blood of the innocent" by stating "v'tov lach - it will be good for you" (ibid.).
Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, notes that the follow-up reminder to fulfill the law was necessary so that one should not fall prey to the faulty reasoning of "One person is already dead, do we need to have two people dead?" The Ramban, another classic commentator, explains that it is wrong to apply the same level of mercy to the murderer as to the one who was murdered. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great leader of German Jewry in the 19th century, calls doing so "indifference towards the shedding of innocent blood," and therefore feeling mercy for the murderer is considered inappropriate.
The Torah recognized that there is a human tendency towards treating living people with more respect than dead people. Consequently, the Torah prescribes many laws that specifically mandate the proper treatment of our dead. Without these specific instructions and emphasis on ascribing respect to the dead, we naturally would have focused our time and effort on perfecting life on this earth and would have ignored, to a large respect, the dead. The Ramban explains that this is why the Torah stressed that this commandment must be fulfilled. Certainly, there is an element of evil that surrounds any evil act and poses negative consequences towards the spiritual well-being of a community, and that must be expunged. Therefore, there is a positive commandment to "remove the evil from amongst you" (ibid.) and when that is accomplished, "v'tov lach - it will be good for you."
However, the Ramban identifies a trend among Torah punishments for acts like murder, witchcraft, and plotting witnesses (mentioned later in this week's Torah portion) where there might be a tendency for misconstrued compassion. The Ramban states that pity is completely misguided here and is actually counterproductive. He explains that the Torah unequivocally mandates the punishment, which by some measures might be considered harsh or unwarranted. Regardless, Hashem, who is called "rachum v'chanun - the merciful One" knows when mercy is appropriate and when it is harmful. It is our responsibility to follow the Torah's eternal dictates, and then "v'tov lach - it will be good for you."
Elie Pieprz, a frequent visitor to Atlanta, writes from Washington, D.C.
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