The Talmud Does Not Sanction Torture (It's the Bible that Sanctions Torture)

Not surprising - given the latest round of news revelations and the release of memoranda from the Bush administration - there are new posts about Jewish views on torture. It appears that it can be argued that the Talmud does not sanction torture in any way, shape or form.

For a good quick summary of the issue, see Benjamin Wiener's, Talmud v. Torture: The Jewish Case Against "Enhanced Interrogation":
Jewish legalism, at its best, is a means of actualizing the dictates of the prophetic voice through a regimented system of behavior: a code of conduct thoroughly imbued with an ethos and a morality. The most articulate condemnations of torture that Judaism has to offer are therefore presented most effectively as deeply spiritual legal analyses.

The best of these, in recent years, was composed by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub for Rabbis for Human Rights, an international organization focusing on a number of progressive issues both in America and Israel. Weintraub’s series of essays, published in 2005, outlined a case against torture, rooted in Talmudic teaching and Jewish collective memory.

In the Talmudic dictum ain adam mesim atsmo rasha (“a person may not incriminate himself”), she found the basis for traditions militating against self-incrimination that were even more extensive than the parallel American statutes, and included particular provisions against coerced confession. She followed this with a discussion of the overarching principle known as kavod ha-briot (“human dignity”), contrasting notions like tselem elohim (“creation in the image of God”) and hamalbin pnei heviro b’rabim (“whoever shames his fellow in public has spilled his blood”) with the depredations of Abu Ghraib.

Jewish law does clearly place preeminent value on the preservation of life, and articulates circumstances in which a rodef (a “pursuer”) may be harmed or killed to prevent his murder of another. But in her third essay, Weintraub demonstrated how the application of this principle to the kinds of practices then being sanctioned by the Bush Justice Department was a gross miscarriage of its meaning.

Finally, turning from the discursive to the evocative, and rooting herself in the Torah’s injunction against “abusing the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt,” she suggested that a history of slavery, martyrdom, discrimination, and genocide should predispose Jews against systematic policies of wanton abuse.
Weintraub's own "Jewish Values and Torture" page links to her essays on the topic, which are the product of a great deal of more sustained research and thoughtful analysis.

This conclusion that Jewish values in the Talmud do not sanction torture reassures us about the role of religion in preserving our humanity. But it does not make us ecstatic.

Why? Because we all can see justifications of inhumanity and cruelty on the top surface of some of the formative biblical narratives our major world's religions.

Obvious to anyone who reads the holy scriptures: God appears to torture his favorite people in the narratives of the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible, and then in the dramatic narratives of the Christian bible, God undeniably sets up the circumstances in which people torture and kill his son.

Okay - you can argue that sending an entire people into slavery in Egypt is not an exact analogue to the instances of torture that we are debating now in our current events. If you argue it, I will grant that forcing a nation into slavery is not analogous to specific cases of torture, like the ones sanctioned by the Bush administration. Overall we must argue that the slavery of an entire nation in Egypt is arguably much crueler.

Now how about a more analogous example.

Waterboarding is a form of torture wherein your torturer makes you think that you are drowning and you are going to die. And then the torturer stops the torture and doesn't kill the victim.

That seems to us a lot like when you, the ultimate authority, command your follower to go and kill his own son, as God does to Abraham in Genesis 22. Commanding a father to kill his own son - that's worse than making someone think they themselves are dying - isn't it? And then you go ahead in that biblical instance and stop the torture - you prevent the man from doing that act of killing.

Is that not a much crueler variation on the waterboarding torture?

And what about another instance - when you, God, send your only son to Israel to have him tortured by crucifixion and killed on the cross - as the Gospels narrate?

Doesn't that raise the issue, if God tortures people, and people were created in the image of God, then it is nothing unexpected that people in turn engage in torture of each other - is it?

Or is it really more analytical to say that we humans tell the biblical stories about the wishes and actions of our Creator to suit and reflect our own torture-and-cruelty-thirsty needs?

So, without belaboring the point any further, we will stop here and affirm in conclusion - this is why we mostly consider ourselves to be Talmudic and not Biblical.


Tevye said...

Your post and quote from Weintraub's book are both misplaced and grossly off-base.

The context of the issue doesn't even seek the Torah as a source. We have to go no further than Maimonides (see "Maimonides" Laws of Murder 2:4-5 and also see tractate Sanhedrin 46a.

Tevye said...

Your post and quote from Weintraub's book are both misplaced and grossly off-base.

The context of the issue doesn't even seek the Torah as a source. We have to go no further than Maimonides (see "Maimonides" Laws of Murder 2:4-5 and also see tractate Sanhedrin 46a.