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Why Are Torah Punishments So Harsh?

Why Are Torah Punishments So Harsh?



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.


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.


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


Vayikra Rabba 4:6.


Sanhedrin, 4:5.


Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for'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.
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Discussion (33)
June 17, 2016
@The flaws of your argument
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
August 3, 2015
The flaws of your argument
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.
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.
August 1, 2013
In response to Glenn
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.
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?
Rochester, NY
November 8, 2010
@Gay & celibate
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.
Melbourne , Vic
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?
August 27, 2010
Gay & celibate
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.
Johannesburg, SA
August 25, 2010
re: walking a mile
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.
jerusalem, il
August 25, 2010
Walking a mile in their shoes
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.
Lakeville, PA