By Rabbi Josh Levy, May 2, 2014

The Torah is quite explicit. For 36 offences, the prescribed punishment is death. Yet while the Torah demanded it, the rabbinic exercise all but removed the death penalty from Jewish law. 

The most famous example of the rabbinic attitude to capital punishment is found in a debate in the Mishnah: “One said: the court that puts to death one person in seven years is considered bloodthirsty. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: One person in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said: If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been put to death.”

The rabbis created a legal structure in which capital punishment could not take place, a structure which required almost impossible levels of proof and process. This was radical for the time. The rabbis lived in a society in which the concept of the sanctity of human life was absent. Capital punishment was an accepted norm. 

More radical still was the religious step that they made.  They took the instructions of Torah and converted them into a “law on the books”, a law never to be enacted.  They were willing to contradict the Torah that they considered to be the ultimate expression of divine will. So passionately did they feel the immorality of capital punishment that they were willing to subvert the clear meaning of the text so that it reflected their convictions. 

These ancient rabbis, sometimes presented as voices of conservatism, were able to be utterly radical in their relationship with scripture. They recognised that Torah could be sacred and at the same time that they could develop it. So their example stands as a challenge to us: a challenge to be radical for the sake of religious principle.

Last updated: 10:00am, May 2 2014