Author Archives: Sam Shonkoff

Sam Shonkoff

About Sam Shonkoff

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva.

The Death Penalty

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On the surface, capital punishment looks like a perfect embodiment of justice. What could be a more fair and logical consequence for people who take others’ lives? The Torah seems to unequivocally support the death penalty. Deuteronomy teaches, “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deut. 19:21).” Moreover, numerous biblical offenses are punishable by death, murder being only one of them.

AJWS LogoParashat Shoftim, however, reflects a more complex perspective. Although our parashah affirms the use of capital punishment, a deep ambivalence surfaces in the description of biblical executions: “Let the hands of the witnesses be the first against him to put him to death, and the hands of the rest of the nation thereafter (Deut. 17:7).”

The requirement that the witnesses, whose testimony condemned the criminal to death, throw the first stones, forces them to consider whether they are prepared to bear the responsibility of extinguishing a life. And the community’s participation ensures that all Israelites share this responsibility. Blood shall be on everyone’s hands; no one may grow numb to capital punishment.

This ambivalence deepens in the Talmud. The rabbis effectively abolish capital punishment, primarily on the grounds that human justice systems are fallible and that executing wrongly convicted individuals is unacceptable. The death penalty should be left in the hands of God, so to speak (Sanhedrin 37a-b, Ketubot 30a-b).

Rabbinic Hesitation

To ensure this, the rabbis prescribe extremely stringent legal measures for capital cases. For example, witnesses must have seen the entire crime as it was being committed, circumstantial evidence is illegitimate, and the accused receives the benefit of the doubt. It is virtually impossible to sentence someone to death in rabbinic courts. Thus, the Mishnah (Makkot 7a) teaches:

“A Sanhedrin [rabbinic court] that executes once in seven years is destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says, ‘Every 70 years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say, “If we were in a Sanhedrin, no man would ever be executed.”

Coping with Complexity

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The child in me wants to hide Parashat Mattot and Parashat Masei in a dusty attic somewhere; so many of their words are disillusioning, disturbing, and embarrassing. Parashat Mattot begins with sexism: all men must keep their promises, yet women’s promises may be nullified by disapproving husbands and fathers (Numbers 30). It continues with genocide: in a spirit of revenge, thousands of Israelites invade Midian and kill every man (Numbers 31:7). When they return with captured women, children, and booty, Moses is angry because his soldiers did not do enough. He commands them to kill every non-virgin female and every male child among the captives (Numbers 31:15-18).

This massacre is especially bloodcurdling for those who remember that Moses lived in Midian for a period of his life and that his wife Tziporah and father-in-law Yitro are Midianites. Later, Parashat Masei foreshadows a horrific mission of ethnic cleansing in Canaan: God commands the People of Israel, “You shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land…And if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides” (Numbers 33:52-55).AJWS Logo

How can we meaningfully engage with such indigestible texts that blatantly contradict our contemporary notions of justice? How do we continue to embrace the Torah and proclaim that “all her paths are shalom“? (Proverbs 3:17)

Wholeness in the Torah

Many people choose to evade, rather than to connect intimately with these difficult issues. Some attempt to “purify” problematic passages through creative interpretations and apologetics. Midrash, for example, is a wellspring of such commentaries. Others ignore the problematic texts and focus exclusively on passages that validate their own personal values. Although these two methods sometimes lead to profound commentaries, they ultimately limit the depth of our engagement with Torah. Whether we justify its faults or we fail to behold its wholeness, we, and Torah, are fragmented.

Power Sharing

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In a just nation, power is distributed among all people. To achieve this ideal, leaders need the humility to empower their own citizens, and grassroots communities need the audacity to actively shape society. In Parashat B’ha’alotkha, we see that Moses understands this need for power-sharing.

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Near the end of the parashah, Miriam and Aaron pose an extremely important question: “Has God spoken only through Moses? Has God not also spoken through us?” (Numbers12:2) Rashi writes that “us” here refers to Miriam and Aaron. But, in the context of this parashah, it seems more likely that “us” refers to all of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.

Immediately after Miriam and Aaron utter this protest, the Torah states, “And the man Moses was very humble, more so than any human on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). This juxtaposition of Miriam and Aaron’s question with a statement about Moses’ humility reflects an optimum political dynamic. Miriam and Aaron essentially assert that no leader has a monopoly on truth and power, and the text suggests that Moses is humble enough to appreciate this fact.

Humility not only enables Moses to understand his role as a leader, it inspires him to empower the Israelites. Earlier in our parashah, God extends Moses’ prophetic abilities to 70 elders (11:16-17, 11:24-30). One might expect Moses to flex his power at this politically vulnerable moment when others suddenly acquire his spiritual capacities (11:17).

Joshua urges him to take charge of the situation: “Moses, my lord, restrict them!” he cries (11:28). But Moses does not feel threatened by an empowered populace. Instead, he responds, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of God were prophets!” (11:29)

In contrast to Moses, who is eager to share his power with the people, there are many political figures in the world today whose thirst for power drowns out the voices of their own citizens. In Burma, for example, oppressive military regimes have held control since 1962. In democratic elections in 1990, the Burmese people officially ousted the junta by voting overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the military refused to give up power: it put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and has held her there for most of the last 19 years. For generations, the military junta has also violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations of Burmese students, Buddhist monks and nuns, and other civilians. The regime continues to inflict severe human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities, especially in the conflict areas of eastern Burma.