‘Once in 70 years’

‘Once in 70 years’

“When the month of Adar begins, our joy increases.”

The heightened joy of the season, prescribed by the sages and redounding to the Jewish people from the observance of Purim, was tragically marred this year by a Purim Day terrorist attack in Jerusalem. A Palestinian drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians, severely injuring five, including four policewomen. Exiting his vehicle, the driver attacked responding security forces with a knife. The assailant was shot, wounded, and taken into custody.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat defiantly affirmed that Purim festivities in Jerusalem would proceed as scheduled. “I invite all residents of the country to celebrate Purim in Jerusalem,” he said. Indeed, there could be no more appropriate time or place for the observance of the holiday, which commemorates Jewish survival despite a genocidal attack against the Jewish people, and despite the irrational hatred of Jews.

The joy of Purim was diminished further, in my estimation, by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s response to the attack. Liberman, calling for Israel to impose capital punishment uniformly on terrorists, said: “Only when the terrorists know that every attack means the death penalty and there’s no chance that in the end they will be released in one deal or another – only then will it be possible to seriously lower the amount of attacks.”

Perhaps Liberman was swayed by the Book of Esther, the liturgical centerpiece of Purim observances, in which the Jewish people’s leading enemy, Haman, is executed, albeit at the behest of a non-Jewish monarch. The biblical book does describe the death at Jewish hands of hundreds of enemies of the Jewish people – in battle and in a defensive action. It is a telling insight into Jewish moral sensibilities – and our religious history – that this violent section of Scripture is customarily read only on Purim, when we are in an altered state and a carnivalesque atmosphere. Only in such a self-mocking context does the welcome execution even of one conspiring in genocide merit a place in the Jewish canon.

Capital punishment is, of course, well documented elsewhere in Jewish sacred literature. The Torah prescribes death as the punishment for a variety of sins: among them, desecration of the Sabbath, cursing one’s parent, and a variety of sexual offenses, as well as the case of the “stubborn and rebellious son.” Rabbinic literature offers an elaborately detailed exploration of the various methods of judicial execution… though whether these graphic discussions reflect actual historic practice, or represent a purely academic exercise, is a matter of ongoing debate.

The most influential text on the subject of the death penalty is from Mishnah Makkot 1:10… “A Sanhedrin that puts a criminal to death once in seven years is called a bloody court. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: Even if only once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said: If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no death sentence would ever have been imposed.” The Mishnaic term here translated as “bloody” is, significantly, the Hebrew “chovlanit” – from which the modern Hebrew term for terrorism is directly derived. Rabbi Akiba, who was destined to be tortured and executed by Rome, taught that a Jewish court that imposed capital punishment flirted with a moral continuum shared with terrorists.

Rabbinic disdain for the death penalty, though normative, was not unanimous. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was a believer in the deterrent effect of capital punishment. He insisted that Tarfon and Akiba’s approach “would have multiplied the number of murders in Israel.”

Were it true, the deterrent effect of capital punishment would present a powerful moral argument – but it is not true. Those who descend to the moral depths where the wanton murder of innocents – civilians, children, and infants like Chaya Zissel Braun, killed in a similar car attack in October – is possible, are precisely those least likely to be open to moral suasion, rational disincentives, and considerations of self-interest. This is particularly the case for those motivated by a desire for martyrdom, reflecting a life-negating, messianic, apocalyptic theology.

Furthermore, an inflexible Israeli recourse to capital punishment for all terrorists – as proposed by the foreign minister – is likely only to escalate hostilities and to increase retaliatory attacks on Israelis, while diminishing the moral stature of the Jewish state. Those perpetrating such attacks against Israeli citizens are not the garden variety miscreants envisioned by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel.

Israeli law does provide for the death penalty in extraordinary circumstances – treason, for example -or in the case of Nazi war criminals. Capital punishment has only been carried out once by the Jewish state, when Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Nazi Holocaust, was tried and executed in 1962. In 1988 John “Ivan the Terrible” Demjanjuk also was convicted of Nazi war crimes in Israel and sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned by Israel’s remarkably independent Supreme Court. That is to say, though Israeli courts have executed only one criminal in nearly 70 years (in keeping with the Mishnaic idiom), the false conviction rate in capital cases – as determined by the Jewish State’s own highest court – is a staggering 50 percent.

I am not an Israeli citizen. I have not served in the Israel Defense Force, nor have my children. I do not live with the daily threat of terrorism in the same way that every citizen of Israel must. Decisions on Israeli jurisprudence – as, too, those regarding Israeli military affairs and statecraft – are properly Israelis’ to make. I am a proud member of the Jewish people, however, and so I lay claim to a certain reciprocal relationship of responsibility with the Jewish state. The moral restraint that Israel has always shown in its approach to the death penalty has long been a source of special pride to me as a supporter and admirer of the state. I firmly believe it compares favorably (to say the very least) with the American legal system’s approach to this matter.

Israel’s death penalty policy – worthy of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba – sets the Jewish State apart from other nations of the world with a less enlightened attitude toward the incalculable value of human life, even the lives of despicable criminals. Nations imposing capital punishment include Afghanistan, China (which had more than 1,000 executions in 2013), Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, among others. Iran and Saudi Arabia have executed criminals who were minors at the time of their crime. Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia carry out public executions. It pains me that the United States – which I so love – keeps such company.

One hundred and three nations have banned capital punishment altogether. Israel’s approach to date demonstrates – to cite the Book of Esther – “light… and honor.”

Perhaps Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is a lone voice, indulging in shrill rhetoric and hyperbole. I hope so. I pray so.

In an unrelated matter, my own Purim joy this year also was diminished by the death that very day of Edward Cardinal Egan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York from 2000 to 2009. Before assuming that leading role in the American church, he had been “my” bishop when we both lived in Connecticut. I cherish a Mass book from the funeral of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, which then-Archbishop Egan sent me as a gift, knowing that I was an admirer of the late leader of Chicago’s Catholics.

Cardinal Egan led the 2.7 million Catholics in New York at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As Americans mourned and expressed their outrage, the cardinal advised: “I am sure that we will seek justice in this tragedy as citizens of a nation under God, in which hatred and desires for revenge must never have a part.” His words provide a fitting coda to the Book of Esther, and sage guidance not only to Americans, but to the State of Israel and its foreign minister.

Obituaries cited his principled response to terror as the Cardinal’s “finest hour.” May the State of Israel’s finest hours be ahead, and may we all celebrate Purim holidays to come – for the next 70 years and more – with unalloyed “light, joy, gladness, and honor.”