In the wake of heinous crimes committed by radicalists who claim to have been religiously motivated, much has been written about the violence that is believed by some to be endemic to certain religions. While it is easy to cast aspersions on other religions and cultures that differ from our own, it is prudent to consider our own religion, and ask ourselves if we would pass the high bar we set for others.
In fact, traditional Judaism is not without any tones of violence. Thought we do not have proper authentic courts and are unable to follow the necessary legal procedures today, the Torah does list a whole host of sins that are punishable by death or flogging, with those penalties meted out by a civilian court. Technically, Jewish courts cannot administer the death penalty today because we do not have a Sanhedrin residing in the lishkat hagazit, a special chamber on the Temple Mount. Similarly, Jewish courts cannot flog anyone because nobody has authentic semikha, transmitted from Rabbi to student dating back to Moshe Rabbenu. However, what if those exclusionary criteria were not in place? Would we feel comfortable living in a halakhic society where those who ate non-kosher food would be flogged and those who violated Shabbat would be killed? As modern orthodox Jews, how do we feel about such a society?
Perhaps we can gain some guidance from the Mishna at the end of the first chapter in Masechet Makkot. The Mishna states that a Sanhedrin that administers capital punishment once every seven years is called a chovlanit – a bloody court. According to Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, even a court that carries out the death penalty once every 70 years is considered “bloody.” These statements tell us that though a system of capital punishment for religious crimes certainly did exist, the execution of such punishments was extremely rare. Interestingly, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say that if they had been in the Sanhedrin, they would not have administered capital punishment at all. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel criticized their position, expressing the concern that without the threat of capital punishment acting as a powerful deterrent, there would be an increase in murders committed. Since his only noted reservation involved the pragmatics of homicide reduction, it seems that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel agrees with Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva regarding their desire to not administer capital punishment for non-violent crimes, like violating the Shabbat. What is undoubtedly clear from this mishna is that there is strong halakhic pressure to not administer the death penalty in practice. One may infer that while the Torah tries to convey the severity of a sin by listing the punishment, in practice our tradition tries to ensure that bodily punishments are rarely carried out.
Perhaps this is a good lens through which to view Judaism’s relationship with counter-culturalism on the whole. On the one hand, we are a religion that should never be afraid to share and promote our Torah values to the outside world. We must take our laws and values seriously and guard them accordingly, even if doing so makes us take a stance that is unpopular or countercultural. Some might suggest that in order to be a light unto the nations, we have a responsibility to do so specifically when our values are countercultural. Nonetheless, we must also remember that our system of halakhic justice was notably tempered with admonitions to resort to the death penalty only in the most dire and inescapable circumstances. So, too, today let us remember that at their core, the ways of Torah are pleasant and its paths are paths of peace. Let us be a light unto the nations, promoting the Torah values that we hold dear. But let us do so without violence, and instead with pleasantness and peace.