Death Penalty and Judaism: Our Ethical Obligation to Russell Bucklew

“You shall love your fellow as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) has been paraphrased in different forms as The Golden Rule of human interactions within many different cultures and religions. However, within the Jewish tradition, the verses in the Bible live in an intertextual web of Rabbinic interpretation, and that verse is explained by the Talmud as teaching us “choose [for your fellow] a good death.” (Ketubot 37b)

“You shall love your fellow as yourself” – “Choose [for your fellow] a good death” – It is, at the very least, notable that the Talmud applies the Biblical word “fellow” (ray’ah in the original Hebrew, indicating commonality and and fellowship) to a member of society who has been sentenced to death. Despite breaking the laws of society, and being found worthy of punishment, our ethical responsibilities have not come to an end. As the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal hat they are by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” – inalienable rights that extend even to members of society sentenced to death. We are still dealing with a human being, endowed with the tzelem elohim, the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27), which refers to the inherent value of human life, regardless of their utility, purpose, or moral state.

Furthermore, in context (Ketubot 37b), the Talmud uses its understanding of the Golden Rule to legally exclude methods of execution that are unseemly, possibly disgraceful, or otherwise more unpleasant than necessary. Without banning execution, the Talmud applies The Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” to teach us that in our zeal for justice, we cannot overlook our ethical obligations, which exist even to those we condemn to death.

Therefore, it is frightening to read about the case of Russell Bucklew. In the United States, states have been concocting new, untested methods of executing prisoners – sometimes causing them to die in agony. In particular, Bucklew appears to be suffering from a cancerous tumor that, doctors fear, will bleed uncontrollably when the drugs hit his system. Rabbi Avi Shafran has begun the conversation by contrasting the Biblical willingness, in theory, to execute people, with the doubtful aspects of fallible humans administering imperfect justice.

But I think we need not be in a state of doubt. Without minimizing the gravity of their past crimes, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we continue to have ethical obligations to these members of society, including careful consideration as to the manner of their death.

We must reject lines of reasoning that posit it does not matter if those so sentenced die in disgraceful agony. We should not be attempting to inflict upon the same pain that they inflicted, and we should not view them as outside of the normal scope of ethical obligations. It is enough that we have sentenced them to death, and that we have decided to carry out that punishment.

Famously, the Mishna (Makkot 7a) disputed over whether or not a court that sentenced someone to death every seven or seventy years was a “bloody court.” A court that fails to apply the ethical obligation of preventing “cruel and unusual punishment,” would seem to me a “bloody court.” We must reject methods of execution that are untested, and likely to cause prolonged, painful deaths. If we must issue a stay of executions until our society comes to a consensus about whether a moral method of execution exists, so be it.

About the Author
Joshua Skootsky, from San Francisco, spent two years in Jerusalem learning at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. Now he studies Chemistry at Yeshiva University.