Friday, March 28, 2014

Fact-Checking the Torah -- The Death Penalty

Every culture has crimes that put the criminal beyond the “pale” so to speak; such a person is so dangerous the culture throws them away one way or another.  The ultimate, of course, is putting such a person to death, and so crimes ought to be the ultimate wrongs that the criminal can do in that culture.
I referred before to Mishnah Holy Things Keritot 1:1 with a list of 36 crimes.  Torah lists some of them: striking one’s parents, kidnapping a person and forcing him to become a bondsman, cursing one’s parents, (Exodus 21:15-17, Leviticus 20:9), bestiality (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:15-16), desecration of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15, Numbers 15:35), engaging in Molech worship (Leviticus 20:2), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), incest (Leviticus 20:11-12), men having sex with men (Leviticus 20:13), using dead or familiar spirits (Leviticus 20:27), the daughter of a priest who commits adultery (Leviticus 21:9), using the Tetragrammaton to curse (Leviticus 24:16), and seduction to idol worship, whether the seducer is a prophet, relative, or close friend. (Deuteronomy 13:1-12)  A girl married as a virgin and brought to court on an accusation that she is no virgin can suffer the death penalty if proven guilty.  (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
In many of these cases, after listing the crime, Torah says mot yamut which, as you know, means execution after due process.
In one other case Judaism permits killing.  Everybody can kill in self-defense.  When it tries such a case, the court will investigate motive.  Exodus 21:13 says “if he did not hunt him down then Gd will appoint a place to which he may flee.” A person killing in self-defense did not hunt the dead person down but was in fact being hunted.  Explicit permission for killing in self-defense is in the Talmud.
Torah also permits killing a thief caught in the house at night in Exodus 22:1.  Jewish law defines such a thief as a potential murderer.  The thief could have waited until day and then stolen from the person or broken into the house to steal.  Nobody breaks into a house by night unless prepared to kill the homeowner.
BUT by the same token, the homeowner can only kill the thief a) at night and b) while the thief is still in the house.  If the sun comes up, the homeowner can’t kill the thief.  If the thief runs as soon as the homeowner gets up, then the homeowner locks the doors and goes back to bed.  No chasing the thief into the street, let alone running down the street after him.
Judaism has a “stand your ground” law which means exactly that.  The person who otherwise has the right to kill, does not have the right to chase down whoever made the attack or broke into the house.
Talmud also allows killing in defense of others based on Leviticus 19:16, but would prefer that a way be found to rescue the endangered person.
Finally, Judaism does not allow killing under coercion.
There are three things a Jew must not do even under threat of death.  One is committing idol-worship; forced conversions are prohibited.  One is forbidden sex acts, some of which are listed in the Leviticus verses above.  The third is killing.  If somebody says to you, “kill that woman or I will kill you,” you must allow yourself to be killed.
Now let’s go back to a verse I just mentioned and discuss the related urban legend about Torah: Exodus 21:16.  Read that and some other verses: Exodus 20:13,Deuteronomy 5:17, and Deuteronomy 24:7.  See you next week!
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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