“Hang ‘em high like Haman!”
Such is the retort that death penalty supporters often sling at us, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” as we protest state-sponsored murders across the United States and the world. Haman, as many Jews well know, is the reviled antagonist of the Jewish holiday of Purim. It so happens that this year, Purim also is the date of Texas’ next scheduled execution. (If you wish to join us in protest of that execution, you can do so here.)
And so, in a horrific synchronicity, as Texas premeditatedly puts to death an incarcerated human being against his will, Jewish communities across the world will read from the Book of Esther about Haman’s foiled plot to murder the Jews of Persia and how he is hanged for his attempt at genocide along with his ten sons. No doubt, as this cycle of killing repeats before our eyes in Texas for our condemned pen pal this Purim, we shall once again hear the familiar chant from our detractors to proverbially “Hang him high like Haman!”
This archaic sentiment reflects a barbaric, literalist interpretation of the Tanakh that ignores millennia of rabbinic interpretation and human progress which many Jews the world over have embraced regarding the death penalty. By such a misguided reading as this, anyone who has ever cursed their parents (Ex. 21: 17; Levit. 20: 9) or persistently disobeyed them (Deut. 21: 18-21) also should be put to death. I myself (and no doubt many of you) would be among the executed.
The Megillah (the scroll of Esther) ends with the Jews of Persia carrying out a bloody battle, in which more than 75,000 people lose their lives. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights powerfully reminds us of what happens when this narrative is taken as a handbook for action today:
“In recent years,” writes Rabbi Jacobs, “some have likened the Palestinians to Amalek [and Haman] and, as such, have justified any violence against this people. It is no coincidence that Baruch Goldstein, a fanatical Jewish settler in the West Bank, chose Purim day to carry out his 1994 massacre of Palestinian worshipers in Hebron. When equated, by those of a certain political viewpoint, to the contemporary Jewish experience, the Purim story becomes an incitement to violence and not simply a satire about a distant time and place.”
Perhaps we might instead view such events as the murder of Haman and the related bloodbath as two more examples that the Tanakh gives us of what NOT to do. For other Biblical counterexamples, consider the lethal sibling rivalry pervasive in B’reishit/Genesis, Pharaoh’s fatal atherosclerosis at the start of Sh’mot/Exodus, King David’s killing of Uriah in order to wed Bathsheba (II Sam. 11), and King Solomon’s problematic relationship with women (I Kings 11), to name but a few.
In the wake of the horrors of state-sponsored murder that our people have witnessed in the past century, Jewish thought leaders have come out in spades against the idea of giving any government the power to kill its prisoners. Indeed, our mantra at L’chaim comes from none other than Elie Wiesel, who needs no introduction. When asked his views about capital punishment, Wiesel famously said, “Death is not the answer.” Many of our members at L’chaim, like myself, are the descendents of Holocaust survivors. We chant these words loudly, as we recall Wiesel’s other famous remark on this crucial issue: “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.”
It is beyond belief that in the year 2023/5783, when deterrence has been disproven time and again as a fallacy, the cancerous legacy of the literal reading of our sacred sources to support capital punishment continues to metastasize in various corners of our world. Indeed, no less than seventy percent of nations on this Earth have abolished the medieval practice of state-sponsored murder, including many so-called “third-world” countries. A tragic holdout is Israel, where National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir recently called for a return “to the electric chair” and where we at L’chaim have issued an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking that he abandon his plan to give such inhuman power to his incoming government. Another well-known exception is Iran, where hanging is the order of the day for those who protest the government.
Here in the US, the deadly legacy of the falsely-interpreted notion of an “eye for an eye” and the Biblical model of execution, as per Haman, could not be more plain than Texas’ plans to “celebrate” Purim this year by carrying out yet another state-sponsored murder. Of course, the Lone Star State employees who were tasked with selecting a murder date probably had no idea that they cast their lots – or, in Hebrew, their “Purim” – for the date of this festive day. And yet: here we are with a Purim execution set for us in 2023.
Ahead of Purim, our condemned pen pal will continue the tradition of begging for clemency and life from a head of state with a hardened-heart. To be sure, Talmudic interpretations of the Megillah describe how Haman, too, begged for his life in vain before his killing. Let there be no doubt: were Haman accused today of the crimes he committed against our people, we at L’chaim, as well as ALL of civilized humanity – would advocate against his execution, just as we are against the state murder of our pen pal in Texas on March 7. We would have asked instead that Haman be tried for his murderous plans, and imprisoned appropriately. Elie Wiesel likely would agree, as would Martin Buber, who along with other Jewish leaders fought vigorously to try to stop Israel’s execution of Adolf Eichmann. They knew as we do that no matter how high we hang the Haman’s of this world, in doing so we are only further lowering ourselves to their level.
Civilized humanity today understands that state-sponsored murder is a blood-thin red line. On which side of that line do you stand? The side of death, or – with us – and with human rights leaders the world over – on the side of life?
L’chaim – to Life!
Cantor Michael Zoosman
Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co- Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”
Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action