I would like a Jewish perspective of this question that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. "About 15 years ago, I was summoned for jury duty. The defendant was charged with two counts of murder. During jury selection, I was asked if I supported the death penalty. I don't. I'm unalterably opposed to capital punishment. But I feared that potential jurors who did not support the death penalty could be automatically disqualified by the prosecution. So I said I agreed with capital punishment. That way, if it came down to it, I might help spare the defendant from execution. But this violated the oath I had taken to tell the truth. Was it ethical for me to lie in order to possibly spare the life of this defendant"?
The prospective juror’s sentiments were noble, but he or she had been sworn under oath to tell the truth. The foundation of all justice is the Truth. In a society where people take a solemn oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” the society relies on the dependability of those oaths. Once selected to the jury, jurors themselves thereupon must hear the sworn testimony of witnesses, weighing those oath-driven testimonies, to arrive at a just verdict. The entire system, is predicated on Truth. Similarly, Judaism teaches that the entire fabric of society is predicated on testifying honestly. Among the Ten Pronouncements (sometimes mistakenly called the “Ten Commandments”), the Ninth Pronouncement forbids bearing false witness, and the Third forbids taking G-d’s name in vain (as in a false oath).
Once the act of lying-under-oath “for a greater good” is accepted, the entire pillar of justice crumbles. Therefore, Jewish values would teach that the prospective juror needed to respond honestly to questions posed. The American legal system is as fair a system as humans ever have concocted, and the system will make its best effort to do justice. The juror in the New York Times article took the law into her own hands. By doing so, she committed the crime of criminal perjury under American law, and she violated one of the most fundamental values of Judaism: speaking the Truth under oath.
In short, I very much agree with Rabbi Fischer here. As noble as the intentions may be, lying under a direct oath, especially if God's name is invoked, is not ethical. An individual citizen cannot take the law into their own hands in this manner or the integrity of the system as a whole begins to crumble. Those who oppose capital punishment must find honest means to stand against it and to convince their fellow citizens and law makers of thier view. Thank you for the question.
I agree completely with Rabbi Fisher's response. Our tradition treats the matter of oath taking with great seriousness. Based on Numbers 30:3, "When one vows a vow unto the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth,” it is assumed that God is party to any oath one makes. Jewish values clearly would not condone such a lie-under-oath.
I understand the impulse that underlies the question, but this is not a legitimate path to oppose the imposition of the death penalty in our criminal system. The state legislature bears the responsibility of setting guidelines for punishment, including whether and under what circumstances the death penalty may be imposed within their state. There are various organizations across the country lobbying against the use of the death penalty. Any individual who feels strongly about this issue should get involved and work directly on the issue through these groups.
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