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Statement on the Execution of Timothy Mcveigh at Supreme Court Vigil by Rabbi Marc Israel, Director of Congregational Relations At The Religious Action Center Of Reform Judaism June 11, 2001

The book of Deuteronomy commands us: Justice, justice you shall pursue. Rabbinic commentators on this repetition of the word justice explain that we must always ensure that we use just means in our pursuit of justice. This morning, we are witnessing what many believe to be the pursuit of justice, but in our country's zealousness to pursue justice for the families of the 168 people killed in the Murrah Federal Building six years ago, I believe that we have lost sight of the just means to do so.

Putting Timothy McVeigh to death today will not bring back any of the loved ones who were killed on that awful day in 1995. Nor is it likely to have any real affect on the next person who would seek to do harm to America or Americans. At best, his execution will provide some of the family and friends of the victims with closure and a fulfilled sense of vengeance. At worst, by re-establishing the precedence of federally-sponsored executions, it will make it easier for our government, on our behalf, to put to death a future wrongly-accused innocent person. For this reason, whatever benefits one might believe might accompany the death penalty, its societal costs are far too high.

Jewish tradition recognizes the tension inherent in the death penalty. While, the Torah proscribes capital punishment for numerous offenses, ranging from murder to breaking Shabbat, it also recognizes the risks involved with the death penalty and immediately seeks to place limitations on its use, requiring stringent standards for its application. These standards were clearly meant to limit its use, leading the rabbinic authority, well, over 1800 years ago, to note: "The Sanhedrin [Supreme Court] that puts to death one person in seven years is termed tyrannical." Another rabbi says it is, "One person in seventy years." Others go so far as to say "If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been put to death." (Mishnah Makkot 1:10) While the debate is by no means settled here, it is clear that some of the most important religious authorities long ago recognized the conclusion that so many of us have come to today: The death penalty, no matter what the circumstance, is a fundamentally immoral punishment.

By executing a mass-murderer, we do not lessen the level of violence in society; in fact, we contribute to it, by taking one more life. Moreover, because capital punishment, like every human intervention, is inevitably flawed by human error, if we allow a Timothy McVeigh to be executed, we are allowing for the fact that we will put innocent people to be put to death. And this is a price that is far too high for a moral society to bear. By putting McVeigh to death, we fail both to achieve justice and certainly the challenge to find a just means.

Even for those who do not wish to mourn Timothy McVeigh's individual death may now wish to take a moment of silence to reflect on the fact that we, as a nation, now have had our hands

The book of Deuteronomy commands us: Justice, justice you shall pursue. Rabbinic commentators on this repetition of the word justice explain that we must always ensure that we use just means in our pursuit of justice. This morning, we are witnessing what many believe to be the pursuit of justice, but in our country's zealousness to pursue justice for the families of the 168 people killed in the Murrah Federal Building six years ago, I believe that we have lost sight of the just means to do so.

Putting Timothy McVeigh to death today will not bring back any of the loved ones who were killed on that awful day in 1995. Nor is it likely to have any real affect on the next person who would seek to do harm to America or Americans. At best, his execution will provide some of the family and friends of the victims with closure and a fulfilled sense of vengeance. At worst, by re-establishing the precedence of federally-sponsored executions, it will make it easier for our government, on our behalf, to put to death a future wrongly-accused innocent person. For this reason, whatever benefits one might believe might accompany the death penalty, its societal costs are far too high.

Jewish tradition recognizes the tension inherent in the death penalty. While, the Torah proscribes capital punishment for numerous offenses, ranging from murder to breaking Shabbat, it also recognizes the risks involved with the death penalty and immediately seeks to place limitations on its use, requiring stringent standards for its application. These standards were clearly meant to limit its use, leading the rabbinic authority, well, over 1800 years ago, to note: "The Sanhedrin [Supreme Court] that puts to death one person in seven years is termed tyrannical." Another rabbi says it is, "One person in seventy years." Others go so far as to say "If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been put to death." (Mishnah Makkot 1:10) While the debate is by no means settled here, it is clear that some of the most important religious authorities long ago recognized the conclusion that so many of us have come to today: The death penalty, no matter what the circumstance, is a fundamentally immoral punishment.

By executing a mass-murderer, we do not lessen the level of violence in society; in fact, we contribute to it, by taking one more life. Moreover, because capital punishment, like every human intervention, is inevitably flawed by human error, if we allow a Timothy McVeigh to be executed, we are allowing for the fact that we will put innocent people to be put to death. And this is a price that is far too high for a moral society to bear. By putting McVeigh to death, we fail both to achieve justice and certainly the challenge to find a just means.

Even for those who do not wish to mourn Timothy McVeigh's individual death may now wish to take a moment of silence to reflect on the fact that we, as a nation, now have had our hands bloodied, and that we are back in the executing business.


The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1700 Reform rabbis.




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