Behind the Headlines: the Bible Backs the Death Penalty, but Should the Jews of New York?

On Feb. 11, 1988, a 32-year-old Hasidic man was found murdered in the warehouse of the wholesale stationery concern he owned in Brooklyn.

Earlier this month, police arrested the former employee who they say stabbed Mendy Feldmouse 16 times in the face and neck.

New York state has no death penalty. But local leaders say that in the wake of the murder of Feldmouse and other brutal crimes, the residents of the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Borough Park and Crown Heights are among those sending a clear message to state lawmakers.

New York City Councilman Noach Dear summarized that message in an interview. Speaking of Feldmouse’s alleged murderer, he said, “There is only one thing to do with this animal. If proven guilty, the guy has got to die. This is not a religious issue, not a Jewish issue. This is justice and proves whether there is anarchy or not.”

A vote in the New York State Assembly next month could reinstate the death penalty, which has not been used here in two decades.

The intensive lobbying that has preceded the vote has received national attention, since New York is the largest and among the most liberal of the 13 remaining states without the death penalty.

JEWS ON BOTH SIDES OF DEBATE

Jewish organization and leaders have joined the argument both for and against capital punishment. But there is an unusual twist:

While the debate has seen non-Orthodox and secular Jewish organizations quoting Jewish law and tradition to argue against the death penalty, it is the state’s Orthodox community that is providing the heaviest Jewish grass-roots support for bringing back the electric chair.

On Sunday, just a few days before the state Assembly votes on whether or not to override Gov. Mario Cuomo’s veto of a capital punishment bill, Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind will host a rally in favor of the death penalty in Borough Park.

“I not only support it, but I have been very involved in the whole lobbying effort,” he said. He added that not a single rabbi among his constituency has written to oppose his stance, and many have, in fact, pledged their support.

By contrast, a number of Jewish groups took part with other religious and civil rights groups in a news conference May 11 to announce their opposition to the death penalty. They included the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues.

The Conservative movement has had a longstanding opposition to capital punishment, according to Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The arguments of these groups and individuals vary. AJCongress, which has opposed capital punishment since 1968, invoked the Constitution’s safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment and the civil rights argument that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to minorities.

AJCommittee, opponents since 1972, said in a statement that “capital punishment degrades and brutalizes the society which practices it.”

But one thing that the groups have in common is that most have invoked religious and moral concerns.

Reaffirming a position first taken by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1958, its president, Rabbi Eugene Lipman of Baltimore, has sent a letter to every state legislator, supporting the governor’s veto.

“Clearly biblical law does not oppose the death penalty,” Lipman said in a telephone interview. “There is no question that there are 15 or 16 different crimes for which the death penalty can be invoked.

QUESTION OF TALMUDIC RESTRICTIONS

“But in Talmudic law, the rabbis, fully aware of the fact that they cannot revoke biblical law, hedged it about with so many restrictions there is no way that they could invoke it,” he said.

The Torah is indeed explicit in prescribing the death penalty for a host of crimes, including murder, incest, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, idolatry and kidnapping.

But in the Talmudic period and the first era of Jewish statehood, ending in 70 C.E., the barriers erected by the sages included strict definitions of reliable witnesses to a crime and assurances that the criminal understood the consequences of his or her actions.

In a 1981 “responsum” written at the request of then-New York state Gov. Hugh Carey, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the late chairman of Agudath Israel of America’s Council of Torah Sages, explained the restrictions.

However, “when the social order is threatened by rising lawlessness and immorality, the concern for the survival of our society may require emergency measures,” wrote Feinstein. “The halacha demands of the leadership of our society an effective response to the chaotic impact of murder, rape, incest and kidnapping.”

The larger Orthodox organizations, Agudath Israel and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, have taken no official stand on legislating the death penalty.

But individual Orthodox leaders and smaller rabbinic groups do feel society has become sufficiently lawless to require “emergency measures.”

PROTECTING THE VICTIMS

“What are you to do when you get a cold-blooded murderer? The victims have to protect themselves from the predators,” said Rabbi Abraham Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Hecht said his Orthodox rabbinic organization came out in favor of the death penalty years ago.

Rabbi Morris Shmidman, executive director of the Council of Jewish Organization of Borough Park, thinks support for the death penalty is the “overwhelming sentiment” in the community.

“I think it is truly a deterrent to the committal of horrendous crimes and sends a message, beyond the death penalty itself, that the government intends to deal severely with those who intend to commit aggravated crimes,” he said.

Supporters of the death penalty believe they need only one more vote in the 150-member, Democratic-controlled Assembly to achieve a two-thirds majority and override Cuomo’s veto. The Republican-controlled state Senate already has enough votes for an override.

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