Biblical law mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses. These include a broad range of crimes from murder to kidnapping, adultery to incest, certain forms of rape, idolatrous worship and public incitement to apostasy, from disrespecting parents to desecrating the Sabbath.
The Reform Movement, however, has followed rabbinic interpretations that effectively abolished the death penalty centuries ago. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. If any perjury were to cause an execution, “the blood of the accused and his unborn offspring stain the perjurer forever.”
The passage goes on to liken wrongful executions to Cain killing Abel, concluding that – it is for this reason that God created only one human in the beginning, a token that he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind; whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.”
Furthermore, the rabbis of the Talmud ruled that capital cases required a 23-judge court, while only three judges sat for non-capital cases (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1). Two or more eyewitnesses were required to testify to the defendant’s guilt, bearing in mind that it was their hands that would, “be the first against him to put him to death” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).
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