Michael Zoosman

‘L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty’ demand a halt to all Executions

Image: Screenshot of TV news footage of L’chaim co-founder Abe Bonowitz ensuring that there is a Jewish presence at a multifaith protest against the execution of our pen pal Rich Glossip and all others in line for state murder in Oklahoma. No copyright.

We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” shall continue to beg for the life of our long-time death row pen pal Rich Glossip, just as we do for all our pen pals in line for state murder. At “L’chaim,” we correspond with all human beings with active execution warrants, Jewish or non-Jewish. In his first letter to us years ago, Rich wrote that it “is time we open everyone’s eyes to what is really going on. I believe that is the reason G-d has spared me so many times – His plan for me.” 

And so, allow us to honor Rich’s wish and help open our collective eyes…

Until just recently, Rich was scheduled for execution in Oklahoma on May 18th. If the psychological torture inherent in any count down to murder were not enough, this was the ninth time that Rich has been forced to do this in his life. Not only was this Rich’s ninth death warrant, but Oklahoma already has served him three “last meals” in his lifetime. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court once again issued a stay of execution to assess Rich’s innocence claim just days before his murder date. Though this reprieves him from death on May 18th, it does not end his nightmarish saga, and the very real prospect of a tenth execution date – if not more – still looms. 

Celebrities such as Sister Helen Prejean and Dr. Phil McGraw joined thousands of others to advocate for Rich’s life. On May 10th, a multifaith prayer vigil was held for Rich, as well as for others in Oklahoma in line for state murder. We at “L’chaim!” made our presence known, as we always strive to do. Co-founder Abe Bonowitz appeared in his tallit and spoke to the press, and an Eil Malei Rachamim – the traditional Jewish memorial prayer – was chanted for all victims of murder in Oklahoma, both at the hands of individuals and at the hands of the state. Recall that in Oklahoma, June 6th, 2022 went from D-Day to death day when federal Judge Stephen Friot issued his ruling that Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol was constitutional, opening Pandora’s box and clearing the way for the state murder of dozens of human beings – innocent and guilty – on the Oklahoma Row of Death. 

Why does our Jewish community care? 

For many members of L’chaim who are direct descendants of survivors of the Holocaust, our lifelong wrestling with capital punishment is intertwined with the legacy of that unparalleled mass murder. We know very well that the Holocaust and the death penalty indeed are entirely separate issues. We know equally well that the lessons about state killings learned from the Holocaust have direct application to capital punishment, and we must heed these lessons to ensure that “Never Again” has any meaning at all. 

Many people erroneously believe that all Jews support capital punishment because of lex talionis – the law of retribution – indicated in the Torah’s famous phrase “ayin takha ayin” (Lev. 24: 19-21) –  “an eye for an eye.” They ignore the fact that many of them also would be eligible for death from a literal reading of the same Torah, which in Ex. 21: 17 calls for the death penalty for anyone who even insults their parents. A closer look at Jewish tradition shows that rabbinic Judaism made the death penalty extremely difficult to carry out. What’s more, a majority of modern-day Jewish authorities have realized that the notion of capital punishment as a deterrence to any would-be murderers  – which was a main justification for keeping it on the Talmudic books – has been disproven time and again. 

Perhaps most damning of the death penalty, however, are facts about the risk of killing innocents. At least 190 people who had been wrongly convicted or sentenced to death in the US have been exonerated since 1972. Other human beings for whom significant doubt remained as to their guilt – such as 14yo George Stinney, Jr. –  have been executed, including some as recently as March of this year. We Jews juxtapose this reality with the clarion call of Jewish sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who stated: “it is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” (Sefer Hamitzvot, Prohibition, 290) There is no doubt that Maimonides would reiterate this now in the case of Rich Glossip.

Still, what about “the worst of the worst” of offenders? Paradoxically, the shadow of the Holocaust itself can help dispel any lingering doubts on this issue. Indeed, the main form of execution that we use here in the United States – lethal injection – is a direct Nazi legacy. Lethal injection, which would be used on our penpal Rich, was first implemented in our world by the Third Reich as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol, used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as developed by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. If this were not enough, some American states continue to build gas chambers throughout our land, with at least one state utilizing Zyklon B to kill its inmates. When such measures are used against innocent human beings, the dividing line between the Nazis actions and our own begins to blur, at best…and to merge, at worst. 

Jewish human rights luminaries such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and many others grasped the danger of giving the state the power to kill its prisoners long before I was born when they opposed Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolph Eichmann. None other than renowned Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel also famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” Prof. Wiesel also stated the following, which has become our anthem in L’chaim: “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.” 

With Buber, Scholem, Wiesel and other Jewish and non-Jewish human rights leaders aligned with this cause, and the shadow of the Holocaust hanging hanging over us, we in L’chaim stand against state-sponsored murder in every single case, even for the Tree of Life synagogue shooter, whose capital trial is now about to begin. If the guilty shooter in that antisemitic attack should not be put to death, all the more some someone who is potentially innocent.  

And so, for Rich Glossip – as for all in line for state murder – we stand with all of civilized humanity in chanting: “L’chaim – to Life!” 

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM 

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

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

Advisory Committee 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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