In a decidedly unsurprising verdict, the man who murdered 11 Jews in the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh has been found guilty. Now, Robert Bowers faces a second judgment: The court must determine whether he will receive the death penalty.
Three congregations were using the Tree of Life facility at the time of the massacre—New Light, Dor Hadash and Tree of Life itself. According to The New York Times, “There has not been agreement among the three congregations or within them about whether Mr. Bowers should be sentenced to death.”
This is also unsurprising. The American Jewish community is overwhelmingly liberal and progressive. As a result, it has long been deeply uncomfortable with the death penalty. No doubt many of them wish to see Bowers pay the ultimate price, but there are likely many others—perhaps a majority—who believe this would only compound his atrocity. It is probable that they believe Bowers’ execution would violate the principles of Judaism itself, or at least their understanding of them.
It is not true, of course, that Judaism has traditionally rejected the death penalty. The Torah prescribes it for all manner of transgressions, and while the Sages and their successors circumscribed its practice, they never rejected it wholesale. It was carefully regulated but remained part of the law and thus considered to be moral and applicable in certain cases, however rare they might be.
For many modern Jews, however, this is not enough. In America, and particularly among liberal and progressive Jews, the traditional Jewish view of the death penalty has been caught up in the maelstrom of the larger debate in society over capital punishment and its possible abolition.
Often, abolitionists’ concerns are practical ones. They hold that capital punishment is ineffective as a deterrent, overused, racially biased in its application and impossible to carry out in anything resembling a humane fashion.
Much like the debate over abortion, however, the details conceal the essential issue, which is a moral one. That is, the abolitionists believe that capital punishment is simply wrong. Killing, they hold, is universally considered to be an evil, and this holds true whether it is done by an individual or in the name of the state. For the state to kill, moreover, is not only hypocrisy but a travesty, because it seeks to punish a crime by committing a crime.
Ultimately, the abolitionists ask a basic moral question: Does the state have the right to kill? Their unequivocal answer is “no.”
I sympathize with this position to some degree. At the very least, it is morally consistent. For me, however, it is not enough.
I will have to preface my explanation with the often unfortunate phrase “as a Jew.” I must do so because I think that, for a Jew, the morality of capital punishment can only be ascertained by asking a very different question.
As a Jew, I believe that question is not, “Does the state have the right to kill?” It is: Should Eichmann have been hanged?
I do not intend to delve into the details of the trial of Adolf Eichmann or the specifics of his colossal crimes. I merely note that Eichmann and his execution present a Jew with a dilemma that, I believe, admits of only one answer.
We must ask ourselves: If we take the abolitionists at their word, that they really believe it is not simply wrong for the state to kill but actually evil, then do we believe—really believe—that the execution of the architect of the Holocaust was actually evil?
This is not a question to be taken lightly. To kill a man, for any reason, is a horrible thing. Indeed, I have read that the guard who cut Eichmann’s body down was traumatized for life by the sight of the corpse’s distorted features. Even the devil’s execution raises the most profound questions of morality and justice.
Nonetheless, I know what my instinctive reaction to the question is. Like the abolitionists, I must obey it and the moral imperative it constitutes. It is a simple, quiet but unequivocal no. No force on earth or heaven could ever convince me that it was evil for Adolf Eichmann to die at the end of a rope or that a state—especially a Jewish state—had no right to execute him.
If I accept this, then I must accept everything that comes with it: The death penalty may be overapplied, discriminatory and ineffective as a deterrent, but it is not inherently wrong. Perhaps it should be used more sparingly and applied only in the most extreme cases, but it is not an unmitigated evil.
The abolitionists have every right to go on believing that capital punishment is an abomination. I respect their principles, but I do not accept them. If I know anything, I know this: Eichmann should have been hanged. If a Pittsburgh court makes the same determination in regards to Robert Bowers, then in good conscience, I will have no choice but to say: So be it, let him hang too.