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Standing against the death penalty

‘Out of the depths, I call to you, Oh God. Hear my voice, may you be attentive to my cry for mercy.”

So the psalmist prayed, thousands of years ago. Sometimes, when we are in the depths and call out, we find true clarity about who we need to be as individuals and who we ought to strive to be as a nation. In times of despair, the voice of hope can come from afar and, no matter its provenance, if it is heard and turns our hearts toward mercy, it can be transformative.

Last year, during the sentencing hearings for the Boston Bomber, those who suffered loss and injury felt their wounds torn afresh as they confronted the face of the one who brought immeasurable pain to their lives. Some of the families, forced to live every day with the pain of the loss of a precious loved one — or seeing a child, partner or friend struggle with a disability cast upon them by one so clearly guilty of acting out of hatred — called for the one thing they believe that would give them comfort: the death of that horrific human being.

“Give him the death penalty,” they cried, despite the plea to not respond with an act of taking life for life, by Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking.”

Certainly, if anyone deserves the death penalty, some retorted, he does. And his death, they believe, will be a salve for their wounds.

I wonder if that will indeed be the case. Few of us can understand the pain these loving families are experiencing. But as Sister Helen has shown in her work to end the death penalty, rarely does relief come for the bereaved after the death of the murderer.

They remain in the depths, and so does the killer, as both live through countless appeals and retrials, often waiting 20 years or more until that final injection or shock is delivered by a state system in way that is surely cruel and inhumane. And we know too well there are times when we discover the one we as a community are about to put to death to satisfy this desire for closure, turns out not to have been guilty after all.

Our legal system, as is our society, is fallible. Racism and economic inequality still pervade our everyday lives, and the halls of justice are not immune. Think of the deep cry of those killed by the state who truly were innocent, and the guilt of all of us when the state kills incorrectly in our name.

Early in 2015, a voice of hope and salvation came from afar — as the State Legislature of Nebraska, dominated by those who are labeled politically conservative, took a stand against state executions. They understood what so many of us know: that the state should not be in the killing business, a conclusion reached by the rabbis of old, as well as so many teachers of diverse faiths.

We are too limited as human beings to justly take a life. Let God take the life and not us, they concluded, interpreting the words of the Bible ­— to imply the murderer’s future is up to God. Until then, let us do what is more economically feasible and morally correct and give them life without parole in order to prevent state-sponsored murder in the case of the innocent and a society that unequally and unfairly exacts a bloody retribution in the case of the guilty.

I, along with clergy of so many faiths, am joining the Clergy Against State Executions, which comes together to empower California’s diverse faith communities to end the death penalty through advocacy, education and prayer. We hope the State of California, a thought leader in so many ways, will hearken to the voice of hope coming from Nebraska and eliminate capital punishment as means of responding to the pain of even the most horrific crimes.

As people of faith, we believe our society can and must do better, standing together against violence and reaching out the hand of comfort and support to those in pain, where with compassion and pursuit of justice we can help them, little by little, to come out of the depths.

Rabbi Jonathan Singer is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Senior Rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El.

Rabbi Jonathan Singer
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Rabbi Jonathan Singer

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