Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hard Choices: Leviticus and the Death Penalty

My sermon of last week, also the text for "The Rabbi Speaks" this Sunday.

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Vayikra
 I’m not much of a video game guy, but I recently heard about a game that might interest you, especially if you’re a fan of games like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. It’s Leviticus, the video game. I’m not even making this up. It’s basically the same as Fruit Ninja, if you’ve watched your kids play, or are willing to admit that you played yourself. The purpose of Fruit Ninja is to wave your finger across the screen to cut up as many pieces of fruit as you can without accidentally hitting an explosive. In this game, you’re slicing and dicing, but they’re animals, trying to avoid those with blemishes or are unkosher, and only striking those that are perfect.

All I have to say is: what a mess. And that’s pretty much how we look at Leviticus—one big mess of blood and guts, animals being sacrificed, blood being dashed on altars, smoke rising to the heavens. We get a chapter or two into this book and we can hear Verna Schenker’s voice in our heads from the Yom Kippur Haftarah: “Is THIS the fast day I call for?!”
And yet, we get so focused on the blood, that we miss perhaps the most important part of the portion, the very beginning, the name of the book itself: “Vayikra Adonai”—God called. God, says Rashi, is calling to Moses the way a parent calls a child, or the way someone calls for help. God calls Moses, the midrash says, as the angels call to one another when Isaiah beholds them before the Throne, calling out “Holy!” to one another, and this call is for the sake of Israel. For what does God call us to do? To make “Korbanot”—a word that is usually translated as ‘sacrifices’ but actually means ‘acts of closeness’, for it comes from the word “Karov”, to draw near.
That call, like Leviticus, challenges us tremendously, for we are called by God not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. For example, what happens when we’re asked to take a stand? Recently I’ve been advocating for repeal of the death penalty in the state of Delaware—to my fellow Jewish clergy, to our board, to you, fellow members of this congregation, and with our legislators. Like many of you, my feelings on the death penalty are nuanced: on the one hand, state-sanctioned death is too often applied to people unjustly—to those who cannot mount an effective defense, who are poor, who are people of color. Our Reform movement has been against the death penalty for over 50 years, and Jewish tradition is, at best, ambivalent on the subject, creating all kinds of obstacles to convicting one of a capital crime, and going so far to declare that a court that sentenced one person every seven years to death was considered bloodthirsty. On the other, there are a handful of crimes—crimes against humanity, terrorism, treason—that even I believe the only answer can be death. Nevertheless, I feel called to advocate for death penalty repeal. And yet, I know that putting that position—or any controversial position—out there can be like the blood and guts of Leviticus: it can distract folks from hearing the call to holiness themselves. So before I dove in, I had to ask the question, one posed frequently these days: should a rabbi, or a congregation more generally, take controversial positions?

For me the answer, despite the pitfalls, is yes. Despite the fact that it might alienate people, despite the fact that I will take more than a little heat, the answer had to be yes. On this position, in this moment, the answer had to be yes, even though it was hard.

But what, then, about those who disagree? Who feel their values are not reflected in the position of rabbi or congregation? If I hold a different position than them, or a different policy, does that mean I don’t value them? I think too often, that’s the attitude. We, members of the community, call to one another to be obeyed. We want our position to win; we want to get our way. But really, what we want is to be heard. We want to be valued, to know that, even if we don’t ‘win’, our position, our self, matters. We want to know that, even if the person across from us disagrees vehemently, we’re still heard. I’m sure we all tuned in or at least noticed the election of a new Pope—Francis I, the first Jesuit, and one of the values of the Jesuit tradition is cura personalis, care for the individual person. Disagreement does not mean lack of care. On the contrary, I can recognize your position and its value, that you have come to a position with thoughtfulness and care, even as I uphold my own. That is, after all, what it means to be a Reform Jew; to recognize that we all hear God’s call differently, and challenge one another to not only hear, but heed it meaningfully.
God calls to us and challenges us not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. When taking a stand will cause us consternation, when we have to sharpen our sense of wrong and right, when the answers are nuanced and not self-evident, and when our choices may alienate others. But when we heed the call with full intent, and true respect and care for the other, we draw karov, closer to God, but also closer to one another. May we always hear God’s call, each other’s call, and answer it with love. Amen. 

1 comment:

  1. Classic Jewish sources often send a mixed message on executing people. In the orthodox Machzor the Al Chait has a section where we ask for forgiveness for failing to carry out the Arbah mitot Bet Din. Silverman which we use at AKSE has the passage but does not translate it while the Harlow and later USCJ Machzorim omit it. Torah certainly has capital crimes of all sorts but we would never become as numerous as the stars in the heavens if anyone enforced them. So we are left with a divide of recognition that capital crimes exist but Rabbinically generated mitigating features that prevent meting them out. We start the Purim season with the story of Saul saving the life of Agog, largely as a professional courtesy of one king to another, but also claiming that Keter Malchut took priority over Keter Torah on matters of implementing justice. He did not remain a functional king for much longer.

    As the stories of the Boston Marathon bombing take shape, I think there is a reminder that capital crimes exist. It is hard to sympathize with the Lockerbee bomber, Timothy McVey, Stalin or others who have traded innocent lives to make a public statement. Certainly irreversible miscarriages of justice exist as well. Within my lifetime, not all executions were for murder. About half in the states of the former Confederacy were for black men convicted of raping white women. I think it took until the 1960's for the Supreme court to eliminate that practice.

    Or maybe Death Row is like Sodom. If we find ten worthy inhabitants, we save the whole community.

    While Jewish law derived from both Torah and Talmud weigh in on public executions in a variety of ways, the other aspect is, of course, whether the laws of the State of Delaware need to run in parallel with the analysis of Jewish sages. I would suggest that they do not have to. In that sense, whether Delaware should join other states, or the State of Israel for that matter, which have eliminated state sponsored capital punishment depends of public sensibilities as they have emerged over the last generation or two.