by April Akiva, R.J.E
In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, Moses instructs the Israelites on a variety of laws regarding false prophets, the centralization of Jewish sacrifice, ritual slaughter, tithes, freeing slaves, and the pilgrimage holidays. In addition, the text warns of the severe punishment inflicted for idol worship and the crime of urging a fellow Israelite to stray from Adonai.
Deuteronomy 13:10-11 clearly describes what an Israelite is expected to do if another Israelite solicits foreign gods to him or her:
Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death, and the hand of the rest of the people thereafter. Stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Was the death penalty used so loosely in Jewish law as the biblical text might suggest? Since the 1st century CE, rabbinic sources have wrestled with the capital punishment laws found in Parashat Re’eh. During the times of the Temple and shortly after, crimes were tried by the Beit Din, or Jewish court. The verdict in capital cases was decided by a majority – only a majority of one was needed to exonerate the accused. Conditions for convicting and executing a person were so restrictive that a Beit Din that put to death more than one person in 70 years was referred to as a “destructive court.” Some scholars suggest that there is actually no evidence that even a single execution took place under the auspices of the Jewish courts.
If the capital punishment laws found in Parashat Re’eh have never really been applied, why then, do they exist? According to some, the laws were established to serve as a deterrent to committing the crime; the success of these laws was evident in that no one was ever convicted. Some Jewish opinions, including a statement issued by the Reform Movement in 1960, render the deterrent rationale to be incorrect. Moreover, might a tradition that puts so much emphasis on teshuva—repentance—support the death penalty?
Wherever you stand on the issue of capital punishment, Parashat Re’eh intrigues us to further investigate this controversial, yet relevant, modern day topic.