At the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), I am working with the 90 Million Strong Campaign, which is currently focusing its efforts in Nebraska, to prepare for a ballot initiative being voted on in November. In 2015, a bill was passed to abolish the death penalty in that state. Then, legislation to reinstate the death penalty was introduced, continuing the work in Nebraska to end capital punishment.
In the Torah, the Hebrew words for murder and kill are distinct and used to discuss different concepts. Rabbi Dovid Bendory discusses this difference, stating that the word used to denote murder is taboo in Jewish law, while killing, which has a different circumstance, is permitted. The word ‘murder’ (retzach) shares a root with the word ‘desire’ (ratzon), presuming murder entails premeditation or planning. It was against law to “murder thy neighbor” or in this case, anyone of the same tribe or nation. It was acceptable to kill enemies of outside nations and kill or sacrifice animals. While capital punishment was discussed in the Torah, it was mainly to show the severity of a crime, e.g. “an eye for an eye.” For capital punishment to be inflicted on someone, there had to have been two witnesses and a person had to be present to warn the criminal of the crime before the action was carried out.
The Reform Movement has followed rabbinic interpretations that effectively abolished the death penalty centuries ago. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases due to the fact that any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. In today’s capital cases, sometimes there are no witnesses at all, so speculation may lead to, and has led to, wrongful convictions.
There are so many reasons why it’s so important to repeal the death penalty. To do so, it is also important to take action!
Coming up in the November elections, there are ballot initiatives and referendums in California and Nebraska about the death penalty. No matter where you live, it’s important to engage in our civic duty and vote, but in these two particular states, there is an opportunity to take action on ending the use of capital punishment.
California has two ballot measures: Justice That Works Act 2016 and Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act 2016. The first repeals the death penalty and the latter cuts the appeals process. While the appeals process is quite long and extremely costly, eliminating it can lead to unfair and erroneous sentences. In Nebraska, the ballot measure is about retaining current legislation that has already abolished the death penalty, or repealing the legislation, which will bring it back. To vote against the death penalty, one should vote to retain the current legislation.
For other states, you can stay up to date about death penalty cases and new legislation. Write to your local government to share ways to promote public safety and crime prevention methods. Write to your Members of Congress to vote against pro death penalty laws. Share stories online. Join the 90 Million Strong campaign. Together, we can help end the death penalty.
Learn more about abolishing the death penalty:
Rachel Kahn is a 2016 Machon Kaplan participant. She interned at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.