Project Genesis

The Jewish Legal System

Criminal Law

Capital Punishment

Question: I am aware of the Jewish law regarding the death penalty i.e. that a person must be judged by 23 judges and that the person must be warned by two witnesses of the prohibition and the punishment. I am wondering what the current Jewish view on the death penalty is. I would think that in theory it is OK but as enforced today, it would seemingly not conform to Jewish law. I would appreciate any guidance on this question.

Answer: Thank you very much for your question. In March of 1981, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, OBM, was asked by then President Ronald Reagan to explain the Jewish approach to capital punishment. He wrote back a response in Hebrew (I assume that he sent an English translation), which is now printed in Rabbi Feinstein’s collection of Responsa, Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat Vo. 2 Chapter 68. After explaining much of Jewish law regarding this, as you mention above, his concluding paragraph is as follows:

“All of the above is when murder has not become rampant (Hefker) in society, and is only done occasionally because of lust, or fighting over money, or honor, etc. However, if we have a murderer who kills because he has been desensitized to life and is a cruel person, or in a society where murder has become rampant, steps would be taken to eradicate this problem from society. I bless the President that he conduct the country with righteousness and honesty (Yosher), and with the justice that is necessary all of his days…” (loose translation by myself)

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

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