This column originally appeared in the Thursday, August 3rd, 2023 edition of the Denver Post: Rabbi Black: “It lessens our own humanity when we take the life of another person”
The man who killed 11 in Pittsburgh synagogue was sentenced to death
by Rabbi Joseph Black
On the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, I was in synagogue when my Apple watch started incessantly vibrating with multiple text messages. Normally, during services, I turn off all my electronics, but for some reason, my watch was still connected to the internet.
Given the volume of messages that kept repeating, I had a feeling that something important was happening. I glanced down at my watch and saw the first reports of a mass shooting taking place. I remember slipping out of the chapel, turning on my phone and discovering, to my horror, that a man had broken into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with an automatic weapon, opened fire and killed 11 innocent congregants.
I returned to the service and, with tears in my eyes, shared the awful news with my stunned congregation. Wednesday we learned that a jury had decided that the guilty party would receive the death penalty for his horrific crime.
When the perpetrator of this act of racist and antisemitic violence (whose name I will not mention) was found guilty on all counts this past June, I felt a palpable sense of relief. Justice had been done and this evil human would be punished for his horrific crime. Upon hearing the news that he would be given the death penalty, however, I felt a sense of unease and trauma – similar to what I felt when I learned about his murderous act in the first place.
The Torah teaches that there are multiple crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed – from violating the Sabbath, to disobeying one’s parents, to idolatry, murder, and bestiality. And yet, while the texts instructing us on how to impose capital punishment are abundant, Jewish tradition does not condone the death penalty. As Judaism has evolved over the centuries, the ancient Rabbis made its application practically impossible. In the 75-year history of the State of Israel only one person has ever been executed by a court of law: Adolf Eichmann — the architect of Hitler’s Final Solution — and even that sentence was hotly debated within the courts and around the kitchen tables of every citizen in the Jewish State.
For me, the central issue is truly none of the above. The issue of capital punishment revolves not around how we see the most evil elements of society — but how we perceive ourselves. Are we going to allow our fear of crime, our desire for vengeance, our BOTTOM-LINE mentality govern how we conduct ourselves? Capital punishment is a quick fix. It may be popular with the voters. It may make some of us feel good or politicians look good as they get tough on crime. But I believe that ultimately it lessens our own humanity when we take the life of another person – no matter how depraved their action may have been.
Those who have committed atrocities need to be punished. They cannot be a part of a civilized society. But I firmly believe that one of the prices of being “civilized” is taking on the responsibility to act in a way that is consistent with our own internal holiness.
All religious traditions teach that one day humanity will be judged. I believe that our judgment will not merely revolve around how we treated the best in our society but how we treated the worst as well. There is evil in the world. There are predators and murderers among us who deserve to be separated and cut off from civilization. For some there can be no rehabilitation.
The price we pay for living in a civilized, moral world is living with the fact that we cannot totally eliminate this evil. But we can assert that we – as a sacred community – will not allow ourselves to stoop to their level. We should not become murderers as well.
Joseph Black has served as Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Denver since July 2010. He also serves as a chaplain in the Colorado House of Representatives and is past president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbis and Cantors.