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Why Are Torah Punishments So Harsh?

Why Are Torah Punishments So Harsh?

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Question:

I know there is an infinite, loving G‑d. It's just that I can't get my head around a few things in the Torah, like death penalties for gays, wizards, and people who curse their parents. Even if these people have erred, couldn't they just be asked to stop or be punished with exile? That's why it's hard to believe that a G‑d who can make a billion galaxies and stars would want us to kill over different beliefs.

Response:

Before answering your question, it's worthwhile to note just how difficult it actually is to impose the death penalty in Jewish law.

First of all, circumstantial evidence won't cut it. You need two impeccable witnesses who had observed the person transgressing an act punishable by death. Next, these two witnesses had to have warned the person of the capital punishment he could receive for doing the prohibited act, even if he already knew. Finally, the person must have committed the transgression immediately after the warning. Any hesitation and the death penalty is off. The same applies to other forms of punishment.

To meet all of these conditions and incur the death penalty seems more like committing suicide then simply transgressing.

Nevertheless, the questions remains: As long as you are not hurting anyone else, sinning is your own private business. Why should you receive any sort of punishment? To get to the bottom of this, let's fly to the moon.

On December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 made history as the first astronauts to go into orbit around both sides of the moon and beam back pictures of the lunar landscape. The next day, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, discussed a lesson to be learned from the event.1

Central Command trains the astronauts how to eat, sleep, dress, and behave in all areas of their life while on board. Deviations, they are told, can mean the waste of billions of dollars. Hearing that such large sums of government money are at stake, the astronauts take every detail of their instructions very seriously.

Moreover, astronaut compliance has nothing to do with how much, if at all, they understand the benefits of the instructions, or the damage caused by not complying. Only the experts on the ground, who spent years researching the issues, know all the specific details. Therefore, the astronauts follow orders without question, even if they don't know the entire reasoning behind everything, because they understand that there are dire consequences for themselves and their team members.

Neither does an astronaut say, "Look, I'm only one of three—which makes me the minority. So if I don't do everything correctly, it's not going to make such a difference." Rather, he knows that any one miscalculation on his part endangers not only himself, but the other two astronauts as well.

Like a flight manual, the Torah guides and instructs us for a safe mission through life. In it, G‑d warns us of the 365 don'ts (the negative commandments) that can derail us and jeopardize our life mission. We don't always know why certain actions are more damaging and dangerous than others, and therefore carry a more severe punishment. But Mission Control does. So we listen.

Moreover, our decisions impact not only ourselves, but our friends, family, community, and the entire world. Actually, the entire idea can be found in a Midrash, composed long before anyone dreamed of space travel:

Moses exclaimed, "One person sins, and You are angry at the entire community?"2

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught a parable for this, of people sitting in a boat. One of them took a drill and began drilling underneath his seat.

"What are you doing?" demanded his friends.

"What concern is it of yours?" he responded. "Am I not drilling under my own seat?"

They said to him: "Yes, but the waters will come up and drown the entire boat."3

The Mishnah states, "Why was the human being created alone? ... To teach you that every person must say: For me the world was created."4 This world, as well as all of the spiritual realms leading to it, was created for each and every person individually. As Maimonides teaches, "A person should always view himself and the entire world as if it is exactly balanced. If he does one mitzvah, he is meritorious, for he has weighed himself and the entire world to the side of merit, and he has caused for himself and for all, salvation and redemption."5

Taking all this into account, let's look back at our situation: We're talking about a very stable, Torah-directed society—evidenced by the fact that there is a Bet Din that has the power to enforce Jewish law. We are talking about a community where people know the difference between right and wrong and only very rarely does someone step out of those boundaries. One person comes along and decides to do something totally outrageous, despite a warning from two witnesses and right in front of them, knowing exactly what he is doing and what will happen to him for doing it. Basically, drilling a hole in a watertight boat for every and any sin to enter.

Truthfully, I doubt that such cases occurred too often. Rabbi Akiva was of the opinion that a court that issues a death sentence once in 70 years is a murderous court. But the message is there: Don't imagine you're an island to yourself. Think twice before sinning. The entire world depends on you.

Footnotes
1.

Sichot Kodesh 5729 - Vol. 1, p. 252; Vol. 2, pp. 341-f, 341-v, 413.

3.

Vayikra Rabba 4:6.

4.

Sanhedrin, 4:5.

5.

Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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MP June 17, 2016

You obviously know that Jewish societies haven't had the death penalty for about 2,000 years. Referencing Haredei communities in a discussion over Biblical practice is anachronistic.

The conceptual explanation given for us not having the death penalty any longer is that it became clear that the collective was not being governed as a reflection of God's will. So it no longer had the right to carry out the Biblical death penalties. So it's not as if we would re-instate the death penalty even if we could.

The reason that witnesses and a warning was important, was that it meant that someone who continued was making a conscious decision to change the norms of society. And that's why they used to administer a sentence. Not because the person 'deserved' it or not.

I wouldn't have thought of having a death penalty for consenting, single, adults even 2K years ago. But then I didn't author the rules of the Torah, and neither did I create the world. And I didn't try ordering a society to refl Reply

Anonymous August 3, 2015

The astronauts volunteered to do this. They knew and understood that this would only be temporary and they knew that they would have to undergo a strict regimen. After the mission was over, they went to the beach and relaxed. Life is not a NASA mission and billions of dollars aren't at stake if a man has sex with another man or if I eat bacon. Also, if the astronauts screwed up, the government wouldn't go take them out back and shoot them. According to your argument, G-d commands us to kill people who sin. Oh excuse me, who are verified sinning and are given correct warnings. Because of arguments like this, your haredei communities are overrun with pedophiles. Reply

Michael March 10, 2014

The Rebbe has discussed the "inclination towards a particular form of physical relationship in which the libidinal gratification is sought with members of one’s own gender", you can find the letter at this link. Reply

Anonymous Alaska August 1, 2013

Well, in this case, (Leviticus 10) Aaron's sons were judged directly by G-d, who knows all the thoughts and intentions of the heart. A judge, a court, a jury: they do not, so there must be absolute proof that they are guilty before man passes judgement. The fact that G-d consumed them right then and there shows that they were not just trying to praise Him, but were being rebellious. G-d always judges with righteous judgements. Reply

Anonymous Rochester, NY August 28, 2011

these two witnesses had to have warned the person of the capital punishment he could receive for doing the prohibited act, even if he already knew. Finally, the person must have committed the transgression immediately after the warning. Any hesitation and the death penalty is off. The same applies to other forms of punishment....where are the scriptures to back this up? Reply

Ilana Melbourne , Vic November 8, 2010

I commend your courage and perseverance. May G-d bless you with peace and true contentment and that you are not lonely but find solace as G-d wants. Reply

rivka NY, NY August 30, 2010

why schizophrenia? why down syndrome? why mutes and defs? why senility? why bi-polars? why cancer? why suicide bombers? why hitler?
why homoseuality? why chidlessnes? why floods? why lie? why murder? why anger? why joy? why loniless? why death? why love? why nausea? why laugh? why eat? why breath? why smile? why suicide? why sex? why money?why animals? why night? why talk? why ask? why give? why please? why write? why will? why feel? why cut? why beat? why answer? why fear? why go? why stuggle? why have? why steal? why run? why bother? why rape? why touch? why desire?why cry? why pain? why listen? why enjoy? why hate? why rage? why ask so little? Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg, SA August 27, 2010

I am gay. There is nothing I can do to change that. This is a fact I have accepted. But I do have free will, and every day for just over two years I have CHOSEN not to act on my natural impulses. It is a choice I made after having lived that life for many years, and I am so much more happy. I cling to G-d as much as I can and I don't even like thinking about the life I led before. I have found an inner peace I never had before. I do get very lonely at times and it is the loneliness, the longing for physical intimacy, that is the hardest to cope with. I believe G-d allowed me to live with this challenge for a reason.
My point is: I have free will. I am using it to the best of my ability to live a Torah-inspired life. There are many gay jews out there who need help to use their free will in compliance with Torah. Rejection, bullying, name-calling and outright hatred and death-threats towards us will not help us. It just makes things worse. Reply

Anonymous jerusalem, il August 25, 2010

you may be right about it being deeper and the jewish community not understanding or accepting it, but the jewish community is supposed to be about what g-d wants. There are plenty of things in the torah that "hurt" on a deep level - what about a mamzer? or a slave who married while in slavery and does not keep his wife? Can we understand this on an emotional level? Nobody's saying it isn't a paramount difficulty, but the community at large must protect the laws of g-d and their people as a whole. There are rabbis out there willing to be there, listen, and help along the way, but something like this needs the strong will of the individual as well. Reply

Dvorah Lakeville, PA August 25, 2010

So many responses here clearly show how many people have no idea of what it is like to be gay. A person whose chemical make up causes them to be gay desires love, intimacy, and family as much as any heterosexual. It is so much deeper than simply giving in to a desire, like a diabetic wanting a piece of chocolate. Being gay is impractical - no one would choose it. Two gay men in a committed, loving relationship is not the same as desiring to be adulterous (gay couples can be adulterous, too), or wanting to sleep with any inappropriate person. It is ignorance, beliefs and attitudes like these that have driven my brother away from his Judaism. That, in my mind, is the greatest sin. Just by being who he is, my brother performs mitzvah after mitzvah every day. His disassociation from his people is a loss to the nation of Israel. Reply

Anonymous jerusalem, il August 25, 2010

two men can love each other, it just depends on their type of relationship. Just as it is wrong for a father and daughter or a married women to another married man, to have a passionate relationship, even if thats what they truly desire, so to two men. You don't have to feel that your were created "wrongly" - how many people desire adulterous relationships that are forbidden by the torah - look around you! We are here on this earth each one to work on the areas that are most difficult to us to become godly poeple. Our strongest relationship should be to g-d, for which we are willing to work hard to leave aside our in-born desires. Reply

Kristopher Wilkins Vancouver, British Columbia August 25, 2010

The opinion is predicated on the idea that Torah is true, and thus practicality is extended only based on that fact. He gave a Jewish answer that was appropriate and fully logical with his context.

If one discusses homosexuality from a secular point of view, it is a highly impractical lifestyle, and is merely a choice that the individual chooses to impart in. If however one says that he has no choice in the matter, then he is effectively equating himself to that of an animal. This may very well be true, as many things come instinctual, but to say that man has never risen above his own instincts, has a vested interest or desire to fool himself for his own satisfaction.

Should Judaism have the right to incur death penalties on non Jewish partisans? Certainly not, for they fall out of the scope. However, assuming that a community of Jews has come together and vested authority in the Rabbis and the Torah, then they appropriately adhere to the consequences of their choices. Reply

phil London, England August 24, 2010

I have read in so many places that love is a form of worship to G-d. Is love between 2 men any less valuable than love in heterosexual relationships? Reply

Glenn August 24, 2010

Isn't there a verse in the Torah that states that G-d destroyed one of Aaron's sons because he offered up a fire alien to Him? There was no warning there. Why did he deserve to die? All he did was praise G-d incorrectly. If G-d could make it so hard to get punished, why be so harsh on a person just trying to praise Him? Reply

Shoshana Yerushalayim, Israel August 23, 2010

Your comment, "if G-d made us gay it can't be a sin", reminds me of a cartoon I saw in the "New Yorker" many years ago:
It showed two cannibals standing by a big pot on a fire and one said to the other, "If G-d didn't want us to eat humans, why did He make them out of meat?"
In a more serious vein, read the excellent article "Is is a sign or a test?" which appears just before this one. Reply

Anonymous melbourne, australia August 23, 2010

if we truly realised the universal effect of our mitzvot, if we recognised that they are both maintaining the worlds existence and infusing the most incredible light into it; if we truly contemplated and understood this, then there really would be no question in the first place. the example of lighting a cigarette on a rocket to the moon is not a 'poetic way of saying 'we don't know G-ds reasons but we don't have to know'' at all! what better example is there of a world so precariously balanced that our every deed has such a radical effect to he point that infinite souls (not billions of dollars) but numerous spiritual worlds are affected by merely one action!!! its just a matter of us adjusting our mindset and coming to realise this - which of course is no simple job... Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem , Israel August 22, 2010

There is only one Truth and that is the Torah. Is a person who goes against his natural inclination to sin and chooses not to sin called living a "lie"? He is living a "truth".
We are not in this world to run after our desires. We are here to serve our Creator. If this hard for us, our reward is so much greater. Was it easy for Jews to be burned to death and beaten to death rather than worship other gods? Didn't they desire to live?
Devorah, it seems that your love for your brother is blinding you and you are trying to justify him even at the risk of going against Judaism, G-d and the Torah and leading others astray. We are two weeks to Rosh Hashana. Wake up!!! Reply

danny london August 21, 2010

no offence, but that didn't directly answer the question. it was more of a poetic way of saying "we don't know g-ds reasons but we don't have to know". in other words, you were just trying to justify the fact that you do not know without even saying that you do not know. Reply

Anonymous Colchester, Britain August 20, 2010

I agree with everything you write from South Africa. I am also gay and celibate and it is a very lonely life. Don't know why G_d made me like this but I can't change who I am! Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg, South Africa August 20, 2010

I am gay, and every time I read these passages of Torah, it really hurts. I have always been attracted to people of the same sex. I did not wake up one day decide to be like this. I fought it with all my strength, until I decided to accept it. Nobody wants or chooses to be gay. You can choose to act on your feelings, and I did for a few years, and all I found was an emptiness that did not leave me until I finally decided I'd had enough. I live a celibate life now, but the loneliness is unbearable sometimes. I don't know why I am this way. I didn't have an absent father. I was never abused as a kid. Only G-d knows. What I do know is that every time I hear I deserve to be stoned to death, it hurts and makes me feel deep sadness. I just was not caught "in the act", that is why I am still alive, according to Judaism. I just don't think G-d would want me to be stoned to death for something that feels so natural to me. Why did He make me like this and then want me to die like that? Reply