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Michael Zoosman

A Plea for Life for the Tree of Life…

Photo: Screenshot of Cantor Michael Zoosman holding a memorial sign for the 11 victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh, PA and singing the song “Tree of Life” by Idina Menzel and Kate Diaz, which was written to memorialize them for the 2022 HBO documentary, 'A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting'

We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” are against capital punishment in every single instance. This includes the case of the perpetrator of the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting, for which jury selection will soon begin for a capital trial in federal court.

Just as we never speak for murder victims or their loved ones, so too would we not deign to do so now. As a hospital chaplain, I regularly counsel mourners that when we grieve, we should be allowed to feel the full gamut of human emotion, including rage, and even the desire for vengeance where applicable. Let none of us ever judge anyone in such a position. If I myself were to lose a loved one to murder, I very well might find myself desiring – and perhaps even advocating – for the death of my loved one’s killer. As a civilized society, we have a responsibility to protect and honor all such mourners, while also upholding the fundamental human rights upon which our world stands. Most basic to these, of course, is the right to life. This is one of the reasons that seventy percent of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty. 

At L’chaim, we always first and foremost remember and honor the victims and loved ones of individuals whose lives have been taken by violence. We do so at the start of every multifaith execution vigil we hold with Death Penalty Action, as we lift memorial prayers from the Jewish tradition for the victims of crimes that led the condemned to the death chamber. Indeed, we have remembered the eleven Tree of Life victims frequently over the years in prayer and song at L’chaim, including renditions of the song “Tree of Life” by Idina Menzel and Kate Diaz, which was written to memorialize them for the most powerful 2022 HBO documentary “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting” We also make annual contributions in the loving memories of the Tree of Life victims, as well as advocating regularly and vociferously against antisemitism in all its heinous forms. 

Let there be no doubt that there is in fact a place in Jewish tradition for the death penalty. Though the rabbis made the standards nearly impossibly high for it to be carried out, they do unfortunately leave that door open. As we read in the Talmud, Mishnah, Makkot 7a “A Sanhedrin [Rabbinic court] that affects an execution once in seven years, is branded a hanging court. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: Were we members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.[Thereupon] Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel remarked, they would also multiply shedders of blood in Israel!” Rabban Gamaliel was referring to the idea of deterrence, which thousands of years ago was indeed believed to be true. Modern science, of course, time and again has disproved the fallacy of the death penalty as a deterrent to crimes. Partly for this reason, thousands of Jewish leaders from across the world now join the abolitionist cause.

Civilized humanity knows that the only “shedding of blood” that would be “multiplied” by state-sponsored murder is our own when we continue the cycle of violence. Renowned Pittsburgh son – and staunch death penalty abolitionist – Mr. Fred Rogers was heard to have said that the death penalty “just sends a horribly wrong message to children.” It conveys the implicit message that two wrongs do in fact make a right, further perpetuating a culture of violence that regularly witnesses mass shootings against both Jew and gentile alike. Jewish Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro also has recognized this truth in his public statements. 

Many of us in L’chaim – like myself – are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors. We are keenly aware that if sentenced to death, the perpetrator of this crime will likely be given lethal injection, which is a direct Nazi legacy, first implemented in our world as part of the Third Reich’s Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as designed by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hiter. We also are well-aware that other American state killing options include the gas chamber, one of which even features Zyklon B, as used in Auschwitz to kill our ancestors.  Like Martin Buber and countless other Jewish luminaries after the war, we would have stood against execution for Eichmann and for any other Nazi perpetrator. Our anthem comes from none other than Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who famously said of capital punishment that “Death is not the answer,” as well as the following: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.” 

And so, in the case of Pittsburgh’s “Eitz Chaim/Tree of Life” shooting, we once again firmly chant: “L’chaim – to Life!”

Cantor Michael Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action 

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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