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Death penalty ‘available’ but should be ‘exceedingly rare’ in Judaism, says Pittsburgh rabbi

Danny Schiff, a scholar at the Federation, addressed capital punishment, as the man convicted of killing 11 Pittsburgh Jews faces the death penalty.

Danny Schiff, a rabbi and the foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, speaking from Jerusalem at a virtual press conference about Jewish perspectives on the death penalty, June 27, 2023. Credit: Screenshot.
Danny Schiff, a rabbi and the foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, speaking from Jerusalem at a virtual press conference about Jewish perspectives on the death penalty, June 27, 2023. Credit: Screenshot.

Speaking from Jerusalem, Danny Schiff, a rabbi and the foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, spoke at a virtual June 27 press conference about Jewish perspectives on the death penalty. He did so as Robert Bowers—the man convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue*Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2018—faces the death penalty in federal court in the city.

When looking through the five books in the Torah, “what one finds is that there is not one of those books that doesn’t call for the death penalty in one way or another,” Schiff said. 

“So it’s not really conceivable to think about making the statement that Judaism is theoretically opposed to the death penalty when every single book of the Torah really advocates or instructs that consideration be given to the possibility of applying the death penalty in certain circumstances,” he said.

Schiff noted that like other legal systems, the Jewish system can “yield more than one viewpoint.”

“The spirit of Jewish law says the death penalty should on the one hand be something that is available, and yet on the other hand be something that is exceedingly unusual,” he added.

Last April, The New York Times published an op-ed titled “Why Jewish Tradition Rejects the Death Penalty.” The author, whose husband, a rabbi, survived the mass shooting inside the Tree of Life on a Shabbat morning, wrote about the toll that the attack took on her and her family.

Rabbi Danny Schiff
Danny Schiff, a rabbi and the foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Credit: Courtesy.

“Though this tragedy has caused more suffering than can ever be described in a court of law, my family feels strongly that the perpetrator should not be put to death. We believe the present-day Jewish tradition prohibits capital punishment,” she wrote. (The op-ed addresses several biblical and rabbinic examples that call for the death penalty.) 

Last month, Schiff penned an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle titled “Judaism does not reject the death penalty,” which noted the Times article and stated many of the same points he made at the Tuesday press conference.

Jews supported Israel executing Nazi Party leader and chief mastermind of the Holocaust Adolf Eichmann after the latter’s trial in Israel in 1962, wrote Schiff. “Those versed in the sources did not claim that the execution was inconsistent with Jewish law,” he noted. 

“When Eichmann’s executioner, Shalom Nagar, stated that he ‘was involved in the great mitzvah of wiping out Amalek,’ nobody declared his act to be a transgression of Judaism,” he added.

Still, Schiff wrote, rabbinic interpretation came to see the death penalty as a last resort.

“Importantly, in the 61 years that have passed since Eichmann was put to death, nobody since then has received the death penalty from a court under Jewish authority,” he wrote. “And that, too, seems to comport well with the long-standing Jewish ethos.”

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