Rethinking ‘An Eye for an Eye’: A Journey Towards Death Penalty Abolition

Ivan Cantu and Thomas Creech.

At its core, the death penalty feeds one of the basest desires known to humankind: the craving for revenge. The 3,200+ members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” — a group I co-founded — along with millions of other death penalty abolitionists across the world have demonstrated time and again in recent years how capital punishment is innately unjust and inhumane. And yet, humanity still has not excised this scourge and overcome the seemingly insatiable hunger for violent and lethal retribution against those who have committed horrific crimes. The US is no exception. As of this writing, Alabama’s torturous Jan. 25 experimental gassing execution of Kenneth Smith was but the most recent example of this millennia-old tradition of brutal retribution — a history that penologist Michel Foucault painfully documented in his seminal work Discipline and Punish.

America will again facilitate state-sponsored vengeance on Feb. 28, when it will play host to not one, but two executions: those of Ivan Cantu in Texas, and Thomas Creech in Idaho.

I personally know how difficult it is to transcend the overwhelming longing for violent retaliation. I grew up as an ardent supporter of the death penalty, gripped in the spell of the same vengeful bloodlust that has plagued so many of my species. I therefore strive never to judge others who harbor such feelings. Instead, I hope that a brief review of my own transformation over time might perhaps compel some to reexamine their own beliefs about retributive killings.

My change of heart regarding capital punishment took place over three decades — and it both began and ended with the Holocaust. Many of my childhood Passover Seders and Jewish/secular holiday gatherings were punctuated by my grandmother and her sister, of blessed memories, sharing details of their harrowing Shoah (Holocaust) experiences. Their survival, and by extension, my very existence, would not have been possible without the martyrdom of Mr. Michał Cegielski, a Polish Catholic man who hid them and other members of my family on his farm at the risk of death — a penalty he ultimately received. (My family and I attempted for decades to locate Mr. Cegielski’s full identity, and now he is rightfully honored in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel.)

During my formative years, I believed firmly that anyone who had tormented and murdered my family members, or, for that matter, Mr Cegielski — deserved to suffer and die. At times, I even felt that I would be prepared to tear them apart with my bare hands, and as painfully as possible, for what they did to my family and my people. The anger that intergenerational trauma had birthed decades before I entered the world was still palpable and powerful, instilling in my heart a nearly murderous rage. This feeling logically extended in my mind to any human being who committed such heinous acts as murder, and I imagined that many other family members of victims felt the same way I did. As I saw it, the Torah clearly endorsed my feelings with its famous declaration of “ayin takha ayin” — “an eye for an eye.” (Lev. 24: 19-21).

Not until my service as a Jewish prison chaplain in Canada did I seriously begin to explore the issue of state killings. I had sought out this unique pastoral care work after spending years visiting my former college roommate and friend Levi when he was incarcerated at Sing Sing and other notorious prisons across New York state. Previously, while in university with me, Levi had experienced a psychotic break causing him to violently assault and nearly kill a family member. My visits with Levi over the years made me realize the need for spiritual support for the incarcerated, and exposed me for the first time to others in prisons who had indeed taken human lives.

In my newfound role as a prison chaplain in Canada, I began to witness first-hand many profound examples of transformation in individuals whose vicious crimes might have qualified them for the death penalty in the US. I became well-acquainted with these men and women, who emerged not as monstrous and unfeeling murderers and rapists, but rather as complex human beings, not so different from my friend Levi — or even from myself. Among them were individuals who after years of incarceration showed sincere contrition, offered heartfelt apologies, and demonstrated fundamental behavioral change — a phenomenon referred to in Judaism as teshuvah (repentance). Were these really the sort of people I previously envisioned tearing asunder as a righteous avenger?

These experiences created within my heart new conflicting feelings about capital punishment. They inspired me finally to take the time to learn the traditional Jewish understanding of the Biblical “eye for an eye.” I was shocked to discover that in Rabbinic parlance this phrase referred to financial compensation for the value of said eyes. I was equally humbled to learn that in its historical context, this lex talionis was intended to curtail, rather than augment, the collective bloodlust of expansive vengeful massacres that societies practiced in response to killings in ancient times — and still all too often today.

I likewise explored the prodigious safeguards that rabbinic Judaism built into Jewish law in order to make the death penalty extremely difficult if not impossible to carry out, lest an innocent person be executed. Simultaneously, I watched the televised saga of the execution of Troy Davis as it unfolded in Georgia in 2011, when the reality of the state killing of an innocent human being was laid bare before my eyes. The clarion call of medieval sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who asserted that “it is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death,” reverberated in my soul. Last but not least, I came to understand what many modern-day Jewish authorities have realized: that the notion of capital punishment as deterrence to any would-be murderers — which was a primary justification for keeping it at all in Talmudic parlance — had beendisproven.

Still, some doubts still lingered in my mind. What about the so-called “worst of the worst,” such as the Nazis and Hitler’s willing executioners who had committed deadly acts of terror and killed members of my own family? Paradoxically, it took the shadow of the Holocaust itself to cast off my final misgivings for the light of abolition. In my ongoing study of capital punishment, I discovered to my horror that lethal injection — the main form of execution used in the US — was a direct Nazi legacy. The Third Reich first implemented this killing method as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol, using lethal injection to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” This protocol was developed by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler. I was appalled to learn that the kind of murderous hate that compelled the Nazis to inaugurate lethal injection in this world had overtaken my own spirit in my advocacy for death. The bloodlust that filled my heart effectively blinded me to the unconscionable Nazi legacy that I was unwittingly supporting. In this way, I had indeed become living proof of Gandhi’s famous warning: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” If this were not enough, I soon learned that American states continued to gas prisoners to death and to build gas chambers throughout the US, with at least one state allowing the use of Zyklon B, of Auschwitz infamy, to kill defenseless inmates against their will.

Celebrated Jewish death penalty abolitionists such as Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber grasped the danger of giving the state the power to kill its prisoners long before I was born. As Wiesel professed: “death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” Wiesel even referred to Israel’s highly controversial 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolph Eichmann as “an example not to be followed,” while Buber called it a great “mistake.”Realizing that these and other Jewish and non-Jewish human rights luminaries were fully aligned with this cause made my change of heart complete. The Holocaust had morphed from one of my most significant rationalizations for the death penalty to one of the most important reasons as I saw it to stand against state-sponsored murder in every single case, including for the Tree of Life synagogue shooter this past year.

Members of L’chaim and I continue to be galvanized by lofty examples of Jewish death penalty abolitionists born from the embers of the Holocaust. One such particularly eminent figure who rightfully received global attentionwhen he passed away earlier this month was former French Minister of Justice Robert Badinter, of blessed memory. The Holocaust experience of Badinter’s family was punctuated by the unfathomable murder of his father Simon Badinter in the Sobibor concentration camp in 1943. Emboldened by this killing and the lessons of the unparalleled conflagration of the Shoah, Badinter went on in his illustrious legal and political career to successfully advocate for the ultimate abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981, the year I was born. A recent tributecelebrating his accomplishments poignantly described that when Badinter was confronted with Klaus Barbie, the Nazi who had arrested and sent his father to his death, he proudly “stood by his opposition to the death penalty and did not wish nor seek to have his father’s killer executed. He thereby demonstrated a rare willingness to place principle over the powerful personal desire to avenge the brutal death of a beloved parent.”

Like Badinter and countless family members of murder victims, I, too, have managed in my own way over time to overcome the bloodlust that had been growing like a cancer within me. As a result, I firmly believe that others have the ability to do the same. People indeed are capable of change, from those who have vengeance deeply rooted in their hearts as I once did to those who have committed some of the most violent acts imaginable. The human penchant for transformation applies universally, reflecting the intrinsically ever-changing nature of life itself. This potential for redemptive adaptation is wired into the DNA of every mortal, and woven into the fabric of every enlightened society. Perhaps, when all hearts and minds transcend the collective cycle of violence and vengeance, human civilization will be able to fully tap this potential energy, finally realizing the ancient wisdom articulated in the biblical Song of Songs (8: 6) that “Love is as strong as death…”

This first appeared on The Jurist.