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Michael Zoosman

Tree of Life Verdict: Statement from “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”

The official logo of "L'chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty" features at its core an Eitz Chaim - the Tree of Life. Below is L'chaim's response to today's ruling of death for the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter

The eleven martyrs of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting – October 27, 2018:

Joyce Fienberg (Idit Balt’chah bat Abba Menachem), Z’L, 75

Richard Gottfried (Yosef ben Chaim), Z’L, 65

Rose Mallinger (Rayzel bat Avraham),  Z’L, 97

Jerry Rabinowitz (Yehuda ben Yehezkel v’Selma), Z’L, 66 

Cecil Rosenthal (Sisel Chaim ben Eliezer), Z’L, 59 

David Rosenthal (David ben Eliezer), Z’L, 54

Bernice Simon (Bayla Rachel bat Moshe), Z’L, 84 

Sylvan Simon (Zalman Schachna ben Menachem Mendel), Z’L, 86

Daniel Stein (Daniel Avraham ben Baruch), Z’L, 71

Melvin Wax (Melvin Gadol ben Yosef), Z’L, 88

Irving Younger (Yitzchak Chaim ben Menachem), Z’L, 69

Zichronam Livracha – may their beloved memories be for an everlasting blessing.

May their neshamot/spirits be loving guides for us all.

May their loved ones be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Israel from a grief the likes of which most human beings like me never could begin to fathom.

May the killings end.

Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel articulated very clearly what should be 21st-century Judaism’s collective response to the sentence of death that the United States government issued today for Robert Bowers, who horrifically murdered these eleven precious souls. Wiesel famously said 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 don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”  He later added of capital punishment: “death should never be the answer in a civilized society.”

To this blood-thin red-line, there are no exceptions. For Wiesel, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Nelly Sachs and other Jewish human rights activists in the wake of the Shoah, this included staunch opposition to Israel’s execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolph Eichmann. For the thousands of members of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty who carry this torch, including many who like myself are direct scions of Holocaust survivors and victims, it applies as well to Robert Bowers. Members of L’chaim are keenly aware that the genocide of the Holocaust is not the same as the issue of capital punishment. Members also realize that for “Never Again” to have any meaning at all, the world must learn from the lessons of that unparalleled conflagration. This means saying “Never Again” to state-sponsored murder of defenseless prisoners, including via the direct Nazi legacy that is lethal injection, which likely will be the means the US federal government now will use for the Tree of Life shooter. 

In his Reflections on the Guillotine, Albert 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?” From my personal experience as a chaplain working with condemned men and women counting down their final months, weeks, days and hours, I can attest to this psychological torture. I can confirm that there is no humane way to put prisoners to death against their will. The death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than the human beings it condemns to death. The west African nation of Ghana realized this when it abolished the death penalty just last week during the Tree of Life capital trial. I pray that one day the United States will join Ghana and the more than 70% of world nations who stand united against the consummate human rights violation that is capital punishment.

For those who remain unconvinced, as I myself once was, consider the words of the late Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the namesake of my alma mater. In his dissent for a renowned 1928 case, Brandeis wrote: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher.  For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious.” When the government imposes and then carries out a death sentence, it teaches everyone that unnecessary lethal violence is an appropriate problem-solving tool. Famous Pittsburgh resident and death penalty abolitionist Mr. Fred Rogers recognized this when he said of the death penalty “it just sends a horribly wrong message to children,In every single case, state-sponsored murder under the false pretense of deterrence is not an appropriate tool to punish an offender who is no longer a threat safely behind bars. As Brandeis and Wiesel knew: the government should set a moral and ethical example. It has failed to do so in the case of the Tree of Life shooter. 

This ruling in favor of state killing perpetuates the cycle of violence and murder. It leaves the door open to the man-made Angel of Death – a door which allows the United States this very same week to execute a severely mentally ill prisoner in Missouri on Tuesday and a prisoner “volunteer” for state-assisted suicide in Florida on Thursday. The USA is joined by only one other known nation in the world that engaged in state-sanctioned murder this week. That nation is Iran, which has executed twelve human beings since Monday. Just last week, Singapore hanged a man and a woman for drug charges, and Bangladesh hanged two other human beings. This is the company the USA keeps. America – and human civilization – must do better…

May we honor the victims of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life – Eitz Chaim in Hebrew – by reaffirming the sanctity of life. Instead of more killing, may we follow the example of the inspiring Jewish community of Pittsburgh. Earlier this week, in what was but the latest example of that community’s unflagging steel resolve, it hosted a life-affirming parade to celebrate the dedication of a new Torah – known also as an Eitz Chaim  – in loving memory of Joyce Fienberg, Z’L, one of the eleven Tree of Life martyrs, and her late husband Dr. Steven Fienberg, Z’L. That sacred community once again has brought new life to the exhortation that has motivated Jewish people for millennia: “Am Yisrael Chai”- “The People of Israel Live!” To this profound demonstration of the very best of Jewish values and resilience, I fervently echo the resounding response of the thousands of members of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty to today’s ruling, as we chant “L’chaim – to Life!”

To mark this awful development, here is a prayer that I composed for inclusion in the Passover Seder just after the song Chad Gadya, which concludes with HaShem obliterating the Angel of Death. May it be so for our manmade Angel of Death…

A Prayer to end the Death Penalty:

“May the outstretched arm of HaShechinah support us in our quest to banish the Angel of Death from our land, and from our world. May we see an end to the taking of life through murder and all forms of capital punishment. May we see restorative justice, compassion and chessed/lovingkindness replace the penalty of death. May healing of mind, body and spirit come for all impacted by violence. And may we always remember: “aza chamavet ahava” – “Love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6)”

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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