Opinion | The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting Could Have Destroyed My Family — but Jewish Tradition Rejects the Death Penalty

In nearly three decades together, I had never seen my husband, Jon, who is a rabbi, leave Shabbat services before all his congregants had gone home. But on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, while I was still dawdling over breakfast and the newspaper, I heard the door open only an hour after he had left the house to go to the Tree of Life synagogue.

Jon had been on the building’s lowest level, leading the New Light Congregation — one of three congregations that shared the space — when he heard shots ring out. He hustled three others, two men and a woman, into a dark electrical storage room. Groping his way around in the darkness, he somehow found steps up and a door that led outside, where a police officer, summoned by a 911 call, screamed: “Get the hell out of here! Go home!” So Jon walked home, retracing his steps on empty streets where residents had been warned to shelter in place as the sirens of cars from police precincts all over Pittsburgh descended on the site.

Meanwhile, the shooter had made his way down to the basement and three of our congregants — Dr. Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Melvin Wax — had been killed, along with eight members of the other two congregations that shared the building. Six more people were shot and wounded that day, but they survived.

The impact of the shooting on their families is unmistakable. The impact on families like mine is harder to measure. Should I talk about Jon’s insomnia? His worsening back condition? His relentless stomach pains? How do I measure the effect on my daughters, one of whom had never attended a funeral before, and another of whom was still processing the death of a classmate a few weeks before the shooting? I, too, was altered, and convinced of danger at every turn.

The reverberations through families like mine don’t show up in the official statistics, but they are a part of the toll of a mass shooting. One 2020 study found significant increases in antidepressant prescriptions written for young people by treatment providers who practice within five miles of mass shootings. Concentric circles of anguish after the Tree of Life shooting extended out through the community of all American Jews, who were left to reckon with the hatred that is directed toward them and the fear that their own place of worship could be next. The full extent of harm done by that one day’s violence can never be accurately counted.

Jury selection finally began April 24 for the trial of the man who is believed to have perpetrated that violence. Federal prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty. But though this tragedy has caused more suffering than can ever be described in a court of law, my family feels strongly that the perpetrator should not be put to death. We believe the present-day Jewish tradition prohibits capital punishment.

Our community was targeted because of our religion. Prosecutors should take its precepts into account as they decide how to secure justice for those we have lost.

I’m well aware that the Bible has many sections that mandate the death penalty, but I also know that “an eye for an eye” has been interpreted since at least the time of the Mishna, roughly 1,800 years ago, as monetary compensation for the value of a person’s sight rather than physical retribution. That applies even to the command in Deuteronomy 21 that mandates the death penalty for a rebellious son who does not listen to the voice of his father or mother. Rabbis in the first and second centuries went so far out of their way to avoid the literal meaning that they decided capital punishment was in order only if both the father and the mother were the exact same height. The rabbis themselves wrote, “There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be in the future.”

For a finite period in ancient Jewish history — from the building of the Temple in Jerusalem until the year 70 C.E. — a high court in Jerusalem did have the power to mete out the death penalty, though it is unclear if it ever actually used that right. Jews have since lived centuries without such a court. Instead, the Talmud explains in Sotah that there are forces at work that ensure divine justice when humans are incapable of granting it.

There is a Hebrew expression used for people killed specifically because they are Jews: “Hashem yikom damam,” meaning “may God avenge their blood.” This, to me, means that it is in the divine realm, not the human one, where justice will be served. I do not believe an earthbound court has the right to administer such divine justice.

Jews believe in the sanctity of life, even removing blood from any meat we eat because we believe blood is the life force. And all human life is said to encompass a whole world. Jewish practice as I understand it does not — outside of self-defense — allow humans to take the lives of other humans. Not even the life of a murderer whose guilt is beyond doubt.

The families of many of the victims have said they feel differently. Jews are rarely unified in their approach to thorny issues, and I respect that those families are entitled to their understanding. However, I believe the preponderance of Jewish law and tradition supports our position.

The book of Ecclesiastes states, “There is a time to kill and a time to heal.” The death penalty does nothing to promote healing; it only continues more killing. I wish the Department of Justice had more awareness of why so many Jews oppose the death penalty. The 11 people killed in this horrific shooting were murdered for being Jews. Why is their accused killer being prosecuted in a way that does not accord with Jewish belief and practice?

Beth Kissileff is the co-editor with Eric Lidji of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” the editor of “Reading Genesis: Beginnings” and the author of the novel “Questioning Return.”

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