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Michael Zoosman

On Psychological Torture: Counting the Omer Until Missouri’s Shavuot Execution

Image: Protestors with Death Penalty Action carrying signs calling for the end of the psychological torture inherent in any form of capital punishment (Source: Death Penalty Action - no copyright.) 

The American execution and Jewish liturgical calendars will once again collide later this spring in another unintended, yet telling synchronicity that highlights the inherent psychological torture of capital punishment. At sunset on June 11th, the festival of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) –  known also as the proverbial Jewish Pentecost – will begin. Around the very same hour, Missouri will put to death Mr. David Hosier. For seven weeks ahead of this “festive” killing date, the traditional Jewish world will fastidiously engage in Sefirah, or Counting the Omer – the sacred practice of counting down each of the forty-nine days between the Passover holiday and Shavuot. Mr. Hosier will spend that same duration tallying the weeks, days, hours and seconds left before the state puts him to death against his will. A closer examination of the unplanned juxtaposition of these two periods serves to unveil the horrific nature of the death penalty itself. When these events eventually culminate on the Shavuot eve execution day, the dark shadow that capital punishment wields will eclipse any light cast by the joy of the holiday; – and the totality of that eclipse will bring only suffering and death.

Mr. Hosier has been a frequent penpal of this writer in my role with “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” a group of nearly 3400 members worldwide who stand against the death penalty without exception. This correspondence marks the latest relationship that L’chaim has developed with scores of individuals over the years since its founding in 2020. L’chaim members reach out to those condemned to die when they receive their execution warrants and often exchange regular messages via phone, letter and computer until their death date, and at times even in their final hours. Like the writings of so many of these men and women with whom I have been in touch, Mr. Hosier’s messages have reflected the abject psychological torture that any society condones by exacting this vengeful punishment.

The traditional Jewish ritual of Sefirah, or counting the omer, begins on the second day of Passover. It marks the ancient practice of presenting an omer – an offering of the new barley crop – at the Temple, and lasts until Shavuot, the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This custom thereby connects the national Jewish redemption story of Passover’s Exodus narrative to the idea of collective revelation that Shavuot celebrates. These themes represent a telling contrast to those that accompany Mr. Hosier’s simultaneous final countdown to death. His enumeration reflects a justice system that leaves no room for any such worldly “redemption,” just as it does not offer any redeeming qualities of restoration, rehabilitation or correction for Mr. Hosier. The only “revelation” that his state-sponsored killing provides is to reveal the collective bloodlust that still persists in any so-called civilized society that executes its citizens.

A striking comparison also emerges when recalling how the seven weeks of Sefirah has long been observed as a period of mourning in Jewish tradition. This grief originates in the many massacres recorded in Jewish history that are believed to have occurred in these spring months, beginning with the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his students at the hands of the Romans, and continuing through targeted attacks on Jewish communities during the three Crusades (1096-1192). To memorialize these awful events, many Jews across the world refrain from participation in celebrations during this time span. According to the Code of Jewish Law in Orakh Hayim 493:2, no weddings should take place, and even cutting one’s hair is prohibited during the Sefirah, reflecting similar Jewish practices during periods of mourning.

Mr. Hosier, too, along with all his loved ones, will experience anticipatory grief during these weeks as he prepares for execution. French philosopher and author Albert Camus powerfully articulated the inhumanity of his torturous plight. As early as 1957, in his book Reflections on the Guillotine, Camus concluded:

“But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.” 

The international community has begun to acknowledge the veracity of this torture in recent years. In a 2012 United Nations press release, Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez identified a “death row phenomenon,” which he defined as “a combination of circumstances that produces severe mental trauma and physical suffering among prisoners serving death sentences, including uncertainty and anxiety created by the threat of death and other circumstances surrounding execution, prolonged solitary confinement, poor prison conditions and lack of educational or recreational activities.” Much is regularly reported – as it should be – about the reality of the physical suffering that inevitably occurs when putting a human being to death, particularly with botched and failed executions. The mental trauma that always accompanies any execution is considered much less often, but is just as horrific. I have communicated with many in line for execution and their words and actions have demonstrated this unimpeachable truth. One such individual who previously had been cleared as sane enough for execution by his medical staff –  and who indeed had no known history of mental illness – attempted a violent suicide as he faced the imminent prospect of his execution. For this very reason, Texas – the most prolific American executioner – has set up the barbaric system of an isolated, continuously-monitored suicide vigil for individuals, who consequently wallow away their final days on the aptly-named Death Watch.” 

The same state of Texas recently put to death L’chaim’s longtime Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy, whose psychological torture throughout the process was evident for all to see. Since receiving his execution warrant months prior to his death date, Jedidiah endured an agonizing wait as he was isolated in the solitary confinement of this Death Watch. In the final weeks before Jedidiah’s killing, his calculations of his remaining time took on renewed vigor, as he awaited word to find out if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles deigned to heed the call of the civilized world and recommend him to the governor for clemency. After learning that the board rejected this appeal, Jedidiah endured extended mortal terror and uncertainty yet again in the final days and hours leading to his execution as he waited to hear from the courts if his killing would proceed. Jedidiah did in fact receive a stay from one such court in the days preceding his scheduled lethal injection. And yet, even then, Texas persisted with its death protocol as if the killing would still take place, assuming that the Supreme Court would vacate this legal hold and that his state murder would be carried out – which indeed it was

All of this transpired against the backdrop of World Day Against the Death Penalty, whose 21st annual observance fell on the very same day as Jedidiah’s state killing – October 10th, 2023. That year’s theme was “torture.As Jedidiah’s fate illuminates, the death penalty is indeed inherently psychological torture, just as it is so often physical torture. States that engage with this killing machine leave their would-be execution victims in a legal limbo between life and death – a  horrific halfway point to the grave that is enough to drive even the most mentally stable person to madness. It is an example of barbarism beyond the scope of anything that should be allowed in the civilized world. 

The Jewish liturgical calendar during Sefirah and Mr. Hosier’s upcoming calendar of psychological torture share still one other crucial, horrific element. This is the fact that, in more recent times, tragic events associated with the Holocaust also transpired during this same season. While the Nazi crematoria and gas chambers operated all year round, the Israeli Knesset fixed the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan – which falls during these weeks of tabulation – as the Jewish calendar’s Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah) for those slaughtered during World War II. The last great deportation to the gas chambers – that of the Hungarian Jews – also took place during this time of year. The Sefirah season therefore became associated with the unparalleled conflagration of the Holocaust. And now, this year, when Mr. Hosier reaches the end of his daily accounting, Missouri will elect to put him to death by a method first implemented in this world by the very same Nazi regime that perpetuated that genocide.  It bears repeating – ad infinitum, until it is heeded – that lethal injection is indeed a direct Nazi legacy. The first human beings to practice the lethal injection process that will kill Mr. Hosier on June 11th were members of the Third Reich who were fulfilling the mandate of their own Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That protocol was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolph Hitler. 

Some will argue that this awful legacy and the torture that invariably accompanies the death penalty are merited and that society is indeed justified in inflicting this ultimate retributive punishment in order to carry out “justice.” Other proponents are more willing to call a spade a spade; for them, the fact that capital punishment is nothing more than a form of lethal revenge that the state sanctions poses no ethical issue whatsoever. The thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” together with the more than 70% of nations that have abolished the death penalty beg to differ with this tolerance for sadism. The death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than any individual it condemns to death. It makes torturers of anyone caught in the gears of its so-called machinery of death. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel understood this viscerally, and so he declared: “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.” Anyone who agrees with Elie Wiesel and with the members of L’chaim can easily join the thousands of others who have signed the online petition to go on record opposing the execution of David Hosier, and all others in line for state-sponsored torture and murder. 

The Psalmist in 90:12 expresses the hope that humanity might learn to “number our days rightly, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.” Any system that warps this counting by forcing people against their will to count down to their time of death is one born not of justice and wisdom, but rather of unusual cruelty and malicious vengeance. For the sake of civilized humanity, such a system must never be allowed to stand in this world.

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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