The Death Penalty in Illinois and in Jewish Law

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois recently signed a law that abolished the death penalty in that state. According to an enlightening article in the Chicago Tribune, “It wasn’t the question of morality but the question of accuracy that led state to abolish capital punishment.” Apparently, it used to be only those who morally opposed the death penalty who were the sole supporters of its abrogation. However, after several wrongful convictions were publicized, even those who morally supported capital punishment had a reason to oppose it: a concern that innocent people were being put to death.

The concern for accuracy in capital punishment is by no means foreign to Jewish jurisprudence. Thirty years ago Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked by an American government official (see the comments for a discussion regarding who it was) for an explanation of the Jewish view of capital punishment. In his response (Igros Moshe, Chosen Mishpat, vol. 2, § 68), Rabbi Feinstein emphasized two points. First, unlike secular governments, the Torah does not impose the death penalty as a means of revenge or keeping the peace through fear. For that, we trust that God will do as He sees fit. Rather, capital punishment serves an educational purpose: it teaches us which transgressions are the most serious.

Furthermore, explains Rabbi Feinstein, the Torah shows concern for human life by ensuring that capital punishment is only imposed after satisfying numerous procedural safeguards. Some examples of the requirements that must be met before one can be punished with death are: a Beis Din whose judges have received Semicha (which is only bestowed upon great and wise men); a quorum of 23 judges; three rows of knowledgeable men must sit before the court and offer any arguments in favor of the accused; two purely impartial witnesses; the witnesses must have warned the accused, and he must have acknowledged the warning; and finally, capital punishment could only be imposed when the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges sat in the Beis Hamikdash (the Temple). As a result, throughout Jewish history, the death penalty was rarely imposed (see Makkos 7a)––not because of any moral opposition to it, but because of a concern for accuracy.

For a fascinating discussion of criminal punishment in Jewish law and Western legal systems, see generally Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein (Chief Rabbi of South Africa), Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society 223-333 (Feldheim Publishers 2006).



Filed under American Law, Criminal Justice, Halacha / Jewish Law, News

7 responses to “The Death Penalty in Illinois and in Jewish Law

    • You are probably right about that. All of the sources that I have seen referring to this letter state that it was written to President Reagan. However, after your comment, I asked a student of Rabbi Feinstein whom I know, and he also said he believes it was written to the governor of New York. Your observation regarding the language of the opening and closing of the letter also seems to indicate that.

      Thanks for the correction!

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  2. Shmuel

    In addition to formal capital punishment bais don had other means in it’s armamentarium such as “kippah” where the accused was interred in a small cell and fed a diet which resulted in gastric rupture and death The level of proof required was much less than the Torah mandate of 2 witnesses and acknowledgement by the perpetrator

  3. Avraham Keslinger

    At the end of his teshuva Rav Moshe points out that the death penalty is warranted in cases of wanton murder or where there is a wave of murders. In such a case the government has the right to impose the death penalty (Rambam Laws of Murderers 2:4). This is even true regarding minor infractions where the intent is to rebel (Laws of Kings 3:5).

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