Pluralism: Does it Deserve the Death Penalty?

Pluralism: Does it Deserve the Death Penalty?

Floor mosaic celebrating sun and zodiac from ancient Beit Alfa synagogue, illustrating a post about religious pluralismReligious Pluralism.

Let’s say you’re an advocate. Because traditions develop all over the world. Different rituals, liturgies, and customs awaken different parts of the human spirit. Thus, you think, we can learn from everyone.

Let’s say you support multiculturalism. Cultural communities should educate their youth. Listen to their young adults. Encourage local creativity. Celebrate regional pluralism.

And, let’s say, you try to be antiracist. You oppose the death penalty. People impose it unfairly. And, because it’s final, you can’t correct mistakes.

Let’s say, you’re me.

You love Torah. And you want it to support religious pluralism. But, you’re not sure it does. Because, here you are, chanting aloud these verses of Torah.

If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who has affronted the LORD your God and transgressed His covenant — turning to the worship of other gods and bowing down to them, to the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, something I never commanded — and you have been informed or have learned of it, then you shall make a thorough inquiry.

If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel, you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death. — A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. — Let the hands of the witnesses be the first against him to put him to death, and the hands of the rest of the people thereafter. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 17:2-7, NJPS translation).

Yikes! Let’s say these verses break your heart. Can you find a way to read them and stay whole? Here are some options.

Look away. Ignore how awful this all sounds. Instead, point how great it is. Why, it’s a strong example of criminal justice reform! You can’t execute someone for heresy without two or three witnesses.

Accept the past. Torah isn’t a history in a modern sense. But it’s the only history we have. And it’s an honest history, recording the best and the worst of the early Israelites. Some of their laws were harsh. Maybe as brutal as in today’s worst regimes.

Recognize a political position. Does this sound like a repressive crackdown on pluralism? Maybe because it is. Or so the Book of Kings suggests. King Josiah is about to centralize political and religious power. Then, he learns of a new book of Torah. It says: there’s only one way, one shrine, one supreme court. Do whatever it takes to standardize. So, some scholars say, Josiah’s book is the one we know as Devarim (Deuteronomy).

Spiritualize the text. “Thus,” the section concludes, “you shall sweep out evil from your midst.” The Hebrew word for “your midst,” b’kirbekha, also means “inside you.” So, the verses are really about an inner process. Turn on your inner witness and observe yourself. Do your habits and impulses lead you away from God? Look once, twice, three times; let your inner witness lead. Then, one step at a time, tear those habits down.

Find biblical allies. Remember: you are not the first pluralism advocate. Or the first death penalty critic. You know the sun, moon, and stars inspire awe. Obviously, some ancient Israelites thought so too. So, where’s the alternate response? It’s in Psalm 19. Part One celebrates the beauty of sunrise. And shows how it points to the Creator God. Part Two gushes about the beauty of God’s Torah. Then, part three invites quiet spiritual reflection.

So, the Psalm teaches, if people love the sun, don’t execute them. Instead, educate them. Show them that nature, text, and soul all reveal God. And that pluralism awakens us more fully.

Image: Zodiac mosaic at the ancient 6th century Byzantine period synagogue in Beit Alfa.

  1. I really appreciate your interpretation about spiritualizing the text: to witness our own thoughts and conduct in false idolatry (not just sun, moon and stars literally but including false promises such as the purported heavenly delights of asset acquisition) and to take action ourselves to eradicate the evil lurking within. Thank you for another thought-provoking analysis!

  2. One of my teachers told me:

    . . . “The Torah is the story of our relationship to God.”

    If you believe that Torah is _the word of God_, the passage under study is really troublesome.

    If you believe that Torah is _inspired_, there are various ways of finessing the passage’s p’shat, to make it more palatable. Most of your examples do that.

    If you believe that Torah was written _by people, for people_, and God wasn’t involved too closely, it’s possible to take “accept the past” to its logical conclusion:

    . . . “Some of us believed that God wanted that, once upon a time, but we don’t believe it any more.”

    That formulation sticks in the throats of many religious leaders. (It’s fundamental for science, but that’s for another day).

    It also raises the question:

    . . . What changed — us, or God ?

    One of my Torah-study partners is fond of asking:

    . . . “If we don’t believe it, why do we keep reading it, year after year?”

    I don’t have a clean answer to that. And I’m getting too old to expect one to appear.

    Thanks —

    . Charles

  3. I think that we should frankly (and humbly) acknowledge, that even though we are often inspired by profound spiritual and social truths in the Torah, it is nonetheless a product of an encounter between a Divine entity that cannot be fully comprehended by imperfect human beings, and that as a result, this text, even if it is truly Torat Chayim, is nonetheless imperfect, and it requires continual interpretation. Some sections of the Torah will inevitably need to be (in effect) rejected, as remnants of a particular social situation which cannot be justified in light of our deepest moral sensitivities and understandings…

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