Part of an ongoing series that explores Torah through an ethic of social justice and building a world worthy of the Divine.
Every single business day, we, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”, make phone calls to American political leaders who hold in their hands the power to grant life and death to our condemned pen pals.
I am a Jewish former prison chaplain and I join many in our group who correspond regularly with all individuals – Jewish and non – who are in line for state-sponsored murder on Rows of Death across our nation. For each of our pen pals, a governor, board, or even US president holds the power of granting clemency to these human beings and saving them from execution, whether by gas chamber, electrocution, firing squad or lethal injection. Seventy-percent of the nations of the world have recognized that the power to kill those we incarcerate is not one that any government official or body should hold. They have learned the lessons conveyed by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) in his famous words on capital punishment, exclaiming:
“With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”
It is profoundly fitting that Wiesel connected the idea of Malakh HaMavet – The Angel of Death – with the death penalty. As we read in this week’s parsha, Bo, our ancestors in Egypt did all they could so that this “Destroyer” would pass over their homes on their quest for freedom. (Ex 12: 23)
We in L’chaim do not claim to be nearly as holy as Moshe Rabbeinu in his appeals to Pharaoh to “let my people go” on multiple occasions in our Torah portion. And yet, perhaps we might be forgiven for drawing some parallels between our daily calls to political leaders whose hearts consistently remain just as hardened as their ancient Egyptian counterpart. In Parshat Bo alone, we read of Pharaoh’s intractable atherosclerosis on four separate occasions, including in the very first verse of our parsha (10: 1, 20, 27, 11: 10). Similarly, the political leaders we contact daily rarely are moved from their pro-death stance.
Our script for our daily calls is a variation of the following text used for states (and the federal government) that utilize lethal injection, which is the most common method of execution used in America:
“Shalom Aleichem/Peace unto you, My name is ____ and I am calling on behalf of the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” across the world, and throughout your jurisdiction. We are calling to beg for the lives of our pen pals in line for state-sponsored murder in ______, which uses lethal injection. Lethal injection, of course, was implemented in our world by the Nazis as part of their infamous Aktion T4 Protocol used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as designed by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. Every use of lethal injection or any form of state-sponsored murder directly carries on the Nazi legacy of the same. We know that your jurisdiction of _______ is better than this. We commend you for your commitment to public safety, which we need: may it grow! And…may it be balanced by a commitment to the most fundamental human right of all: the right of life itself. As Elie Wiesel famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” Rather, as we say: “L’chaim…to Life!”
To be sure, some jurisdictions in our nation offer the gruesome “Sophie’s Choice, 2.0” of making the condemned choose their form of execution, which in some states includes the option of the gas chamber. In Arizona, that chamber features death by Zyklon B itself – the very gas used in Auschwitz. For these states, we amend our script accordingly…
How wonderful it would be if our daily appeals were heard, if hearts were softened and if the pro-death leaders were to reply as Pharaoh responded to Moses on one occasion: “Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with your God יהוה that this death but be removed from me.” (Ex. 10: 17) Indeed, we in “L’chaim!” try to model this behavior for these leaders when we chant Kol Nidrei asking forgiveness for us all for the national sin of the death penalty as we gather every summer in front of the steps of the US Supreme Court as part of the annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty. We also have written a direct appeal to President Biden called “Kol Nidrei: Biden’s Broken Vow on the Death Penalty Abolition,” as well as an open letter to the incoming Israeli government asking them not to reinstate the death penalty, as per its current platform.
How wonderful it would be if these pro-death leaders were to follow the lead of such inspiring heads of state as Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who commuted all 17 remaining death sentences in Oregon at the end of 2022, or Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, who commuted all 167 death sentences in his state before leaving office twenty years ago, an action for which he still maintains no regret?
Instead, the answer we usually receive to our calls is silence…and death. Mercifully, we do have moments of celebration, as in the case of our pen pal Ramiro Gonzales who had a stay of execution last year, and who has hoped for years to be a live kidney donor in order to give life as a form of the massive teshuvah he endeavors to make for the life he took.
Though we are not Moses, we shall indeed follow his example: we shall continue our pursuit of restorative justice with the necessary evolution of the famous Torah charge, chanting: “Abolition, Abolition Shall you Pursue!” We welcome all to join us in our quest to put an end to the American cycle of violence and death by joining “L’chaim!”, making daily calls of your own, and by signing and sharing petitions that our friends at Death Penalty Action (DPA) deliver to political leaders for ALL those in line for execution. Indeed, we invite you to peruse the various Jewish Actions and Resources on the Death Penalty that we have collected with our partners at DPA. You are welcome, as well, to join us for the international online execution vigils that DPA offers for each of our pen pals. As I write this d’var Torah this week, we are holding two such vigils, one last night for one of our executed pen pals in Texas and another tomorrow for a pen pal in Oklahoma. “L’chaim!” has a presence at each vigil, which includes the chanting of traditional Jewish memorial prayers for the original victims in each case, as well as the chanting in Hebrew of Psalm 23 for the slated execution victim, whom we as a society are placing in the “valley of the shadow of death.”
Together, our voices can and will become loud enough to soften the hearts of our pro-death leaders…
Together, we shall one day succeed in making this manmade Angel of Death pass over our nation, and eventually our world…
Please join us in our peaceful mission to do just this, and lend your voice as we chant: “L’chaim…to Life!”
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM, is a Board Certified Chaplain and is part of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. He is co-founder of “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” and an Advisory Board Member at Death Penalty Action. This is his first post at Builders Blog.
Image source: Wikimedia commons.