Death Penalty in the Talmud
Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish
At times, modern death penalty discourse can seem black and white and simplistic. Those who support it cite deterrence and retribution as the primary reasons for this punishment, while those against often cite the possibility of wrongful conviction and the sanctity of human life as reasons against.
What often gets neglected, however, is any discussion of the intricacies of the death penalty process itself. As Beth Berkowitz states in her book Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures (which inspired this course), we will examine rabbinic discussions of the death penalty, “…in order to better understand the nexus between violence and authority in the cultures of ancient Judaism and, ultimately, in our own.”
Together we will explore questions such as "is a 'good death' ever possible?" What is the role of retribution in the criminal justice system then and now? How do the rituals of death empower or remove agency from the various actors involved?
We will pair rabbinic texts with more modern takes on the death penalty and allow both types of sources to draw out aspects in the other we may not have seen otherwise.