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Rabbi's Update 8/4/2023

Dear Friends:

On Wednesday the jury in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre case voted for the death penalty for the murderer, and yesterday the judge formally sentenced him to death. (I am purposely not using the murderer’s name so as not to give him the notoriety he sought.)

Over the years I have spoken about the need for us to learn to disagree respectfully. The Pittsburgh Jewish community and the families of the victims demonstrated the ability to do this. Seven of the nine families of victims (there were 11 victims in total but nine families because there were two brothers as well as a married couple who were murdered) supported the death penalty and two opposed it. There were three congregations that met in the Tree of Life building that morning. The rabbi of Tree of Life itself spoke in favor of the death penalty for the murderer. The rabbi of New Light Congregation, another Conservative shul which rented space in the building, spoke and wrote against it. But according to everything I have heard and read, the discussions within the community were conducted respectfully and the unity of the Pittsburgh Jewish community has not been disrupted by the trial or the sentence.

I can understand both sides of this debate. I’ve spoken and taught about Jewish approaches to the death penalty before (you can watch one of my talks here). In general I believe that the way the death penalty is applied in the United States does not meet halachic standards (the large number of death row inmates who have subsequently been exonerated by DNA evidence speaks for itself). Your chance of being sentenced to death is much higher if you are poor, poorly educated, and Black. But I have also said that in theory I could support a death sentence if it was abundantly clear that the accused was in fact guilty and had adequate legal representation. I think in this case those requirements have been met.

I’m still troubled by the question of whether the murderer is in fact mentally ill and if so, whether that should make him ineligible for the death penalty. At the same time, I have increasingly asked myself how to differentiate between someone who is suffering from mental illness and someone who is simply a bad person.

Of course, those who believe that the execution of the murderer will bring them “closure” are likely to be disappointed. Appeals will take years and Democratic Federal administrations are reluctant to actually carry out executions -- in the two and a half years that Merrick Garland has been Attorney General, not a single Federal execution has taken place. If the murderer is ever actually put to death, it will be a long time from now.

An acquaintance of mine who spent a number of years as a public defender working on death penalty appeals and who grew up in Squirrel Hill, and whose father was a block away when the murders took place, wrote that while she still opposes the death penalty, she understands that in this case the halachic standards were met. She then went on to say that the death sentence makes her said and she does not want to waste any energy feeling sad for the murderer. I think she perfectly summarizes the ambivalence a lot of people feel about this sentence.

As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.

As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

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