One of the first things the Torah tells us about human beings is that we are created in God’s image, b’tzelem elohim. This concept is not to be understood in a physical manner, but in a more abstract way. We share with our Creator something unique that defines us as humans and distinguish us from the rest of the creatures on the planet.
I believe this is the ability of possessing consciousness and self-awareness, the ability of generate worlds with words and images, and the power to think in rational and abstract ways. It is that certain “thing” that makes us who we are; a Divine spark that lives inside every person.
Parting from this idea we can say whoever kills a fellow human being is killing or disconnecting a little bit of God, or at least God’s manifestation on this realm through the eyes, soul and life-story of a human being.
Are we in charge of taking away the connection? What are we to play the role of Angel of Death?
Our tradition teach us about exceptions to killing:
2)To kill one who attacks another person
3)The right granted to the kin of one who was accidentally killed to pursue the responsible for the accident (Avenger of Blood, Deuteronomy 19:6)
4)Willful murder was punished by the courts.
There seems to be a moral guilt the killer has to pay for, even in accidental cases. This strongly encouraged to be extremely careful not to be the cause of the loss of a human life.
All these exceptions for killing went through an evolution from the Biblical through the Rabbinical period. Special interest was given to issues regarding the capital punishment declared by courts. Some commentaries remind us that the Golden Rule (Love your neighbor as yourself) also covers criminals, and members of the court had to keep in mind to choose an easy death for the accused (Pesachim, 75a).
There is a stronger opinion against capital punishment however, and it’s the one which I abide and base my stand on the issue.
It can be found in the Mishna in Tractate Makot 1:10:
“A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous.
Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah says: once in seventy years.
Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers in Israel.”
The death penalty is intrinsically perverse, as it strips the dignity of the human that is about to be executed. It also taints the hands and souls of those who have to carry the task of doing it.
Answered by: Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez (Emeritus)