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My Turn: It’s time for state to repeal death penalty

On Sept. 30, the Monitor reported that Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester had filed a bill in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session that would repeal the death penalty.

I applaud Vaillancourt’s efforts. The death penalty has no place in civilized society.

Many Granite Staters feel very strongly that because the death penalty is found in the Bible it is a valid punishment. I therefore wish to offer some insights into the biblical application of the death penalty.

The Bible – what Jews call the Hebrew Bible and others call the Old Testament – lists at least 21 offenses that are punishable by death. Yet, within the Bible itself we see no actual application of the death penalty. In fact, approximately 2,000 years ago, the ancient rabbis whose responsibility it was to interpret the laws of the Bible concluded that application of the death penalty had never occurred in the Bible. They ruled that going forward, in order to apply the death penalty, the prosecution would have to prove that:

∎ a witness saw an individual about to commit a crime for which the punishment was death;

∎ the witness would have to warn the person not to;

∎ the person committed the crime nonetheless;

∎ and a minimum of two witnesses saw the person commit the crime.

In other words, they created a standard making application of the death penalty virtually impossible. The rabbis stated specifically, “Perhaps a witness testifies that he saw a man running after his fellow into a ruin, the witness pursued him and found him with a sword in his hand dripping with blood while the murdered man was writhing in agony. If this is what you saw,” the Rabbis say, “then you saw nothing.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 37b)

Jews, like other religious people, are not of one mind. We have divided ourselves into four denominations and we frequently disagree on issues.

∎ On the death penalty, however, we are united in our opposition. We believe that:

∎ Only God is infallible. Human beings will make mistakes. Approximately 300 people in the 20th century were wrongly convicted of capital offenses.

∎ No evidence has proven that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.

∎ All human beings possess the power of repentance; the death penalty removes this possibility.

The modern state of Israel is the only nation in the world that governs in accordance with both democratic and biblical principals. Israel repealed its death penalty after using it once. Not on Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yizchak Rabin. He sits in prison. Not on terrorists who have blown up university cafeterias, pizza places, coffee houses, discos, and scores of other public gathering places. They, too, sit in prison.

The only application of the death penalty in Israel was to kill Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal. Even then, the citizenry was so divided that Israel repealed the death penalty soon thereafter.

Others have raised the biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as showing support for the death penalty. This verse is meant only to help a court derive the amount of financial compensation to pay a victim or the family of a victim for the loss of life or limb. It is not a support for the death penalty.

In most nations where Christianity is the official religion or where the governments give special recognition to Christian religion, the death penalty no longer exists. The following list shows the years in which these Christian nations outlawed the death penalty:

∎ Andorra, 1990

∎ Argentina, 2008

∎ Costa Rica, 1877

∎ Denmark, 1933

∎ Dominican Republic, 1966

∎ Finland, 1949

∎ Republic of Georgia, 1997

∎ Greece, 1993

∎ Haiti, 1987

∎ Honduras, 1956

∎ Iceland, 1928

∎ Italy, 1947

∎ Liechtenstein, 1987

∎ Malta, 1971

∎ Monaco, 1962

∎ Norway, 1905

∎ Paraguay, 1992

∎ Poland, 1997

∎ Portugal, 1867

∎ Slovenia, 1989

∎ Spain, 1978

∎ Switzerland, 1942

It is time for the U.S. to be added to the list of nations that no longer punishes by means of death. Let’s start at home, here in New Hampshire.

(Robin Nafshi is the rabbi at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord.)

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