Michael Zoosman

‘Teiku’ (תיקו): Agreeing to Disagree about the Death Penalty

Albert Camus on the psychological torture of the death penalty, from his 1957 extended essay "Reflections on the Guillotine." Image: (No Copyright) Some truly do feel that this torture is warranted, as I used to before witnessing it myself. Now, I join the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” who do not. “Teiku” - the disagreement stands…and that is okay.

Jews have agreed to disagree with one another on the issue of the death penalty – along with many other topics –  for millennia. Judaism’s capital punishment debate has lasted at least since the time our rabbinic sages discussed the issue, a conversation which is on display for all posterity in the pages of the Talmud. The American Jewish community’s varied opinions on whether or not the death penalty is now merited for Robert Bowers, the perpetrator of the deadliest antisemitic attack in United States history at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2017, serves as the latest manifestation of this debate. It also is a reminder of just how relevant this issue is for 21st century Judaism. (As if to emphasize this reality, it happens that the next execution scheduled in Texas is of this writer’s longtime pen pal Jedidiah Murphy, a Jewish man scheduled for state killing on October 10th, which is World Day Against the Death Penalty. Jedidiah’s petition is here.)

I recently partook in a virtual roundtable of Jewish leaders that the Forward convened to respectfully discuss Jewish views of capital punishment in the context of the death penalty phase of Mr. Bowers’ federal trial now taking place in Pittsburgh. I learned a great deal from the input of the other members of this week-long conversation, and I cannot overemphasize just how grateful I feel to have had a proverbial seat at the table with these Torah scholars and thoughtful and erudite leaders. The panelists who I joined included (in no particular order):

1) Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was horrifically taken hostage with several congregants in his former shul in Colleyville, Texas, in January 2022,

2) Professor Beth Berkowitz, who teaches Jewish studies at Barnard College, and wrote the 2006 book Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures,

3) Rabbi Shais Rishon, who writes under the moniker MaNishtana, an award-winning novelist and speaker and contributor to the forthcoming anthology Jewish Priorities: 65 Proposals for the Future of Our People,

4) Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, whose 2012 responsum “Participating in the American Death Penalty” was adopted by the Conservative movement in 2013 as one of its official halakhic positions, and

5) Rabbi Mira Rivera, a chaplain and rabbi-in-residence at JCC Harlem and The Lunar Collective, who was among the 2023 recipients of T’ruah’s “Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award.”

During this discussion, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, in one of many very powerful comments, offered this most relevant insight:

“It is also very Jewish and very human to disagree. This is life and death, and people have strong emotions — not only the families of those who were murdered, but those who survived, those who are and were members of the shul, and those of all Jewish people who were impacted and traumatized by such events. In dramatic moments like these, my question and plea to you and our people: What does it look like to ensure that our communal conversation remains “for the sake of heaven?”

Rabbi Cytron-Walker, in my opinion, is absolutely on-point. I often have encountered similar responses to the public advocacy in which I have engaged alongside the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” since its inception in 2020. Unfortunately, unlike Rabbi Cytron-Walker, many other individuals hold the common misconception that members of death penalty abolition groups like L’chaim do not honor the victims of the individuals for whose lives they advocate. Of course, this could not be further from the truth. L’chaim’s recent memorial prayer for the elven martyrs, Z’L, of the Tree of Life massacre at a United States Supreme Court death penalty abolition vigil is but the latest example of this fact.

It is the part of Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s comment indicating that it is okay that we Jews often tend to disagree that struck a particular chord with this cantor. I have often heard this sentiment echoed in the voices of others with whom I have respectfully engaged on this issue. It is a notion with which I fully concur, especially as someone who myself used to support the death penalty and had a change of heart after becoming a Jewish prison chaplain and later witnessed the psychological – and often physical – torture that is the death penalty. We can indeed agree to disagree on capital punishment – and that is okay. 

Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s comment reminded me of the word “Teiku,” which the Talmud often employs to place a final note on an unresolved interpretive dispute between sages. In his Times of Israel post “TEIKU: A Meeting of Equals,”  my esteemed colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor taught me that “Teiku” actually is derived from the Aramaic word “Teikum,” meaning “it (the question) stands.” The term certainly accurately reflects the various contemporary opinions in the Jewish community on the death penalty.

“Teiku” might also encapsulate the Jewish response to one other death penalty case that seemed tied to the heart of the global Jewish community. This of course was Israel’s trial and eventual 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann. While it is true that the majority of the Jewish world did not object to putting Eichmann to death, many Jewish leaders did indeed vociferously protest. These notably included renowned Hebrew university philosophers Samuel Hugo Bergmann and Nathan Rotenstreich, scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, who called the execution a great “mistake.” Other Holocaust survivors themselves, such as Nobel-prize winning author, Nelly Sachs voiced strident opposition to Eichmann’s execution.

More than anyone, it was twentieth-century Jewish human rights icon Elie Wiesel whose words encapsulate the stance of the members of L’chaim. When asked about his position on capital punishment, Wiesel resolutely stated “Death is not the answer in a civilized society.” On this, Wiesel made no exception, famously stating the following in a 1988 interview: “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 Wiesel’s prophetic call and this legacy of Jewish death penalty abolitionists whose torch L’chaim members carry today. L’chaim ensures that there is a vocal Jewish presence at every execution vigil in the USA. L’chaim also seeks to educate others how lethal injection, the most common American form of execution, is a direct Nazi legacy, first implemented in this world by the Third Reich in their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That program was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolph Hitler. This is indeed the legacy that the US federal government likely would employ in order to put to death the Tree of Life shooter. In addition, various states utilize gas chambers, and Arizona even has approved the use of Zyklon B, of Auschwitz infamy. L’chaim members also are pen pals with all Americans in line for state killings, letting them know that L’chaim stands on the side of life. Members make daily calls to all actively executing governors, sign daily petitions, draft op-eds like this one, deliver synagogue programs, engage in regular TV, radio and podcast interviews, and advocate publically against the increasing calls for executions in Israel.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the unparalleled horrors of the twentieth century, 70% percent of the nations of the world have recognized the inviolability of the human right of life and have abolished the death penalty. It is L’chaim’s position that 21st-century Judaism, directly targeted by that unparalleled conflagration, must reflect this evolution and become its own Tree of Life – as per our logo below – whose branches extend as far and wide as possible to help revitalize humanity.

Let there be no doubt: there are members of the Jewish world not affiliated with L’chaim who feel otherwise, just as I used to feel – and that is okay. Regardless of where one stands on state killing, it is clear that the question of the death penalty remains a “Jewish issue” today, as much as it was in Talmudic times, and as much as it always has been and shall remain for any religion, spiritual tradition, culture, or society that is a part of human civilization. 

And so, “Teiku” – the question stands. With it, I would argue, so stands the ethical legitimacy of Judaism and humanity as a whole in the 21st century. In this sense, the question indeed stands “for the sake of heaven.” From my personal experience as a chaplain working with condemned men and women counting down their final months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes, I can attest that there is no humane way to put a prisoner to death against his or her will. To do so is nothing less than psychological tortureFor this, and for all the reasons outlined above, I maintain that the death penalty reveals infinitely more about the society that enacts it than the human beings it condemns; indeed, it condemns us all.

One has every right to disagree with me as I shall forever chant alongside the thousands of members of L’chaim: “Never again to state-sponsored murder!” and instead: “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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