Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York
I got a letter from a murderer the other day. And I'm starting to lose sleep over it.
A number of years ago I wrote a column called "The Kaddish and the Grateful Dead." The column was picked up and reprinted recently by AOL writer Gil Mann, in his publication Being Jewish. And that is why I got a letter this week.
Whatever the exact status of this subject in Jewish tradition -- integral part of the system or speculation about the nature of reality -- I personally believe that anyone who claims to know for sure the details of what will happen to any of us in a world to come is probably trying to sell a book. The word "mystery" is for a world shrouded in mist. We hope. We pray. But we just don't know.
Well, my immediate response was a bit defensive, of course. Hey, don't shoot me; I'm just the messenger! (Perhaps, in context, this is not the best of sayings to use here.) I didn't pick these categories. And, more
to the point: in Jewish terms they are hardly "contrary to Scripture." Something that comes from the Talmud is considered "Oral Torah." In tradition this is not contrary to Scripture, but an elaboration and explication of it.
An image comes to mind. It is of Bud Welch, who is circling the country, speaking out against the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. The man lost his daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing. But, he says, he is a
religious person. And he "forgives" McVeigh.
In this way, murder is different from idolatry. You can repent from that, lead a better life, and Jewish tradition says -- regarding converts, in a blunt and not-too diplomatically worded injunction -- that we are not supposed to remind them of their "pork-eating, idol worshipping past." (Remember: by idolatry we mean idolatry --paganism and polytheism; Judaism considers both Christianity and Islam to be sibling monotheistic religions.) A story is told of the time just before the execution of Adolph Eichman, in Israel. You remember Eichman the mastermind of the Final Solution. This is the only time in all of Israel's history that the death penalty was carried out. (Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to death, but then released.) Israel has capital punishment on its books only for genocide. (This has to be the case. There has to be an incentive for a terrorist holding a group of children hostage to give up, to face a different outcome if he releases the children than if he shoots them and goes down with them.) Reportedly, a pastor came to Eichman, to speak with him before the execution. The pastor was confronted afterwards by a reporter who was a Holocaust survivor: "What happened? Will Eichman go to heaven?" The pastor replied something like: "If he accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, yes." The reporter asked: "Well, what about the million children that Eichman slaughtered. You know the answer. It was this: Well, they did not accept Jesus. No. They don't go to heaven.
Judaism is not like this version of Christianity. (Actually, much of Christianity is not like that version of Christianity either.) Judaism is different. For us, what we do matters. Not just how we feel about it. So what hope is there? If you have murdered once, why not kill again? What difference does it make?
We can find a hint of hope, I believe, in the commentary, in the margin of the page, in the fact that Jewish law is ultimately met by the uncertainty of the future, for sinner and saint alike. This is what I mean. We are told that to save a life, we can violate any commandment but three. If someone points a gun to your head and says: eat that bacon cheeseburger during Pesach or I'll blow you away, well, say the motzi and dive in. The same is true of any other commandment save three, the three I mentioned earlier: murder, sexual immorality (rape and incest) and idolatry. In these cases, even if someone is threatening your life, you do not give in. You don't murder someone innocent to save yourself. How do you know your blood is redder than his (or hers)? So someone asks: well, what if you do? What if you bow down to an idol in public? What if you even -- God forbid -- kill an innocent, to save your own life? I remember reading the answer. It was Rambam, I believe, who said that in such a case, who are we human beings to judge what to make of such a person? There are some things, he said, which God is going to have to sort out, at the time of reckoning.
And maybe...just maybe... we can stretch the case... to cover even a repentant murderer.
After consultation, after thinking about it, after asking colleagues for help, this is what I will try to say, to the man who wrote me that letter: Nothing can change the past. And nothing can make up for what you have done. But in real repentance, in true contrition, lead your life from now on in the best way that you can -- whatever your circumstances -- and as the best person you can be. And we can hope, and we can pray, that when you -- or any of us -- do meet our maker, God will know what is in our heart, as well as what our hands have done.
It is not a guarantee. It is not a sure thing. It is a mystery, and a challenge...and a matter of faith.
I don't know if that's my final answer. What would you say?