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33http://www.beth-israel.org/blog/2011/01/Rabbi-Lyon%27s-Blog---01_20_2011
Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 01_20_2011
01/20/2011 09:24 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 21, 2011

 

                This past week, I joined six other faith leaders in Houston, on a panel to address our opposition to the death penalty, in general, and specifically in Texas. The program was held at Hobby Center, in Zilkha Hall, to a full house. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, moderated the program. Perhaps you read an account of the event in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday morning. They listed the participants, including me, whom they called the “senior pastor of Congregation Beth Israel.” My Methodist pastor friend explained to me as we laughed together, “It’s a southern town, after all.” The Chronicle is forgiven.

                In addition to the Catholic and Protestant messages against the death penalty, which were stirring and passionate, it was vital that a Jewish message was included. The lack of understanding about the issue among Christians and Jews is nearly the same. Even before the program began, a minister asked me if I was prepared to address the texts in the “Old Testament” on crime and punishment. I assured him that I was.

                The context of my message was the covenant God sealed with the Israelites in the past and which remains as vital, today. To define it, I cited Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, a Reform Jewish theologian of our time. He wrote:

“When we seek God as partner in every significant act, we invest our doing and deciding with direction, hope, [and] worth; and, where we fail we have the possibility for repair.”

                Inherent in our covenant is God’s unconditional love and hope for God’s creations. Living in covenant we thrive; when we fail, the same covenant provides a path to healing and wholeness.

                In Torah, the litany of offenses for which a person may be put to death includes murder, idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, violating the Sabbath, sorcery and even rebelling against one’s parents. But, to read only Torah and not the formidable laws in Talmud and other volumes of Jewish law, gives a terribly false impression of the actual incidence of capital punishment in ancient Israel. Talmud is perfectly clear on the meaning of the Torah texts. Scholars agree that it is highly doubtful that the rabbis ever imposed the death penalty. As for the rebellious son, Talmud states, “It never happened and it never will” (Sanhedrin 71a).

                In Judaism, today, across the movements and in the State of Israel since 1954, with one exception (one found guilty of genocide or treason during war time), the moral standards of our time and place demand nothing less than the abolishment of the death penalty. From the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (July 28, 2008):

While Biblical law mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, we follow rabbinic interpretations that effectively abolished the death penalty centuries ago. [Talmud] stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood; prevailing Jewish thought in every movement (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Recontructionist) has followed previous opinions, which either oppose the death penalty outright, or allow for it only in the most extreme…circumstances. The major Jewish movements in the United States all have specific policy supporting either abolition of the death penalty or a moratorium on its use.”

                The covenant saves us from personal, spiritual and moral destruction. In turn, through study of Torah and its teachings, further interpreted in Talmud, and performing deeds which reach the level of a “mitzvah” a commandment by God, we save the covenant from destruction.

                There is nothing more painful than the death of innocent victims of senseless crime. Most recently, none of us has been untouched by the aftermath of the horror in Tucson. Is the answer to take another life? Will it restore justice, restore life, or honor God’s covenant? Our moral obligation is not to murder again. Our moral obligation is to be mindful stewards of God’s covenant. Therefore, to recall Rabbi Borowitz’s words, let us resolve to seek God as “partner in every significant act, to invest our doing and deciding with direction, hope, [and] worth; and, where we fail, [always] to seek [for ourselves and others] the possibility for repair.”

                To hear the full text of my presentation, I will deliver it again on my radio program, Sunday, January 23, 2011, 6:45am, on KODA 99.1; and, for more information on opposing the death penalty in Texas, go to www.tcadp.org.

                From my desk to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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