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soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Jewish Thought (6/12)
Section - Question 12.27: What does Judaism say about the punishments in the Torah?

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                                  Answer:
   
   The Torah contains many types of punshment, from stoning to death.
   Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out that, on the surface, all punishments
   in the Torah appear ludicrous! How is it possible that a Jew is
   deserving of death by stoning for kindling a match on the Sabbath,
   whereas a thief only has to repay what he is stolen as a punishment
   (and in certain situations double)? Why is it that the concept of
   incarceration does not exist in the Torah (except for designating
   cities of refuge for someone who killed _unintentionally_)? Further,
   Judaism does not actually impose any penalties unless we have two
   independent, non-related eyewitnesses, who have warned the perpetrator
   before doing the act what punishment he will receive, and the
   perpetrator must answer them "Even so, I will transgress and do
   (whatever the bad act is)". Our rabbis teach us that a court that has
   put a person to death more than once in 7 years, and according to some
   opinions more than once in 70 years, is a "trigger happy" court, and
   must be disqualified! Is this a deterrent?
   
   The explanation, again according to Rav Feinstein, is that the Torah
   concept of punishment is entirely different from the secular concept
   of punishment. The reason there are punishments in secular law is to
   protect society. Hence, those who steal are locked up to "get them off
   the streets", and there is no punishment at all for people who choose
   to violate the Sabbath. However, the Torah perspective is that the
   punishment is not for the protection of society, for G-d guards and
   protects society. The Torah punishments are primarily a message to
   those who study them, teaching the gravity and essence of the laws
   that they are studying. For example, in traditional Judaism, a Jew who
   intentionally violates the Sabbath must be aware that this is an act
   of denial that G-d created the universe, and consequently his life is
   not worth living, because for what other purpose are we here other
   than to know and teach that there is one Creator whom we must serve! A
   person who steals must repay what he has stolen, to the point of going
   into servitude if he is unable to, to drive home the message of what
   he has done, and what steps thus must be taken to rectify it.
   
   We also find that the Talmud "borrowed" this technique, and taught us
   that there are some things that might seem trivial to us that we would
   do that are "deserving of death" or that a person who performs it
   "forfeits his life". One example is in Pirke Avot [Chapters of Our
   Fathers] (3:9), where we are taught that if someone is studying Torah
   as he is walking, and interrupts his studies to comment about how
   beautiful G-d's creation that is surrounding him is, he is considered
   to have "forfeited his life". Obviously we are not saying that we kill
   such a person; rather, there is an underlying message.
   
   So, when we read about a punishment in the Torah, we should ask
   ourselves: "What does the punishment teach me about this
   transgression, and how might I better improve my service of G-d with
   this knowledge?"

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Top Document: soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Jewish Thought (6/12)
Previous Document: Question 12.26: How does one atone for sins?
Next Document: Question 12.28: What does the Torah mean by Abomination?

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