Thursday, August 19, 2010

Casting the First Stone

Like many of you, I’m sure, I read with great interest the story in the Times earlier this week about the Taliban’s revival of stoning in Afghanistan as the preferred method of execution. The details would be gruesome enough, but at the heart of the story was the detail that the “criminals” who were so executed were neither thieves nor murderers, but a young couple whose crime was that they had fallen in love. The story is simple enough. A young man of twenty-five named Khayyam fell in love with a nineteen-year-old named Siddiqa. The only problem was that Siddiqa had already been betrothed by her family to marry another (who, coincidentally, was a relative of Khayyam’s). Unable to convince Siddiqa’s family that she should be permitted to marry the man she loved, the couple eloped and fled to a province in eastern Afghanistan where they stayed for a while with some distant relatives. But then they were lured back to their home by people, including members of their own families, who told them that a new decision has been reached and that, as a result, they were going to be permitted to marry and live together as husband and wife after all. Fooled by these false reports, they returned home. Once they arrived, however, they were arrested by the Taliban, tried by a court of local mullahs, and sentenced to death.

The death sentence was carried out immediately. Khayyam, who already had a wife and two children (Afghan men are permitted to marry up to four wives), and Siddiqa were taken to the local bazaar, where they were encircled by about two hundred men who threw stones at them. Siddiqa died first, then Khayyam. The two hundred participants were supported by a large, enthusiastic crowd of supporters. A spokesman for the local body of Islamic clerics noted that stoning is the correct method of execution for people convicted of having engaged in illicit sexual relations. President Karzai deplored the whole incident, choosing to frame his remarks in terms of regret regarding the increased power of the Taliban rather than in terms of any specific sympathy for the executed couple. Otherwise, the world kept spinning. There was no follow-up story in the paper.

There are a thousand different reasons for this story to interest the American reading public. For me, however, the story was especially provocative because it reminded me—disconcertingly—of any number of passages I know from the Torah. In the Torah portion we will read tomorrow in shul, for example, the Torah decrees death by stoning for a woman who misrepresents herself as a virgin to a man who believes her and then, acting on that belief, marries her. Also in this week’s Torah portion is the law decreeing death, also by stoning, of an engaged woman who engages in sexual relations with a man other than her fiancé. (The woman, I should note, is given the benefit of the doubt. If the incident is shown to have taken place in the countryside where she can be presumed to have cried out for help, then only the man is to be stoned to death. Only if the incident took place in an urban setting where she would surely have been heard if she had called for help are they both to be stoned to death.)

Of course, Biblical law ordains capital punishment for many different offenses including sacrificing to alien gods, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath laws, and sorcery. Nor are all who are found guilty of sexual crimes to be executed by stoning. The daughter of a kohen, for example, who is found to have behaved promiscuously is to be burnt to death. And there are also passages in which capital punishment is decreed for specific offenses, but in which the precise method of execution is not made clear. (Our oral tradition eventually worked out a precise list of which criminal ends up executed in which way. Adulterers, for example, are to be strangled.)

As horrible as the story from Afghanistan is, therefore, we are hardly in a position to throw the first stone. Or are we? Part of the test, I believe, of the vibrancy and spiritual worth of any religion is its ability to morph over the centuries into an ever-finer and ever-more-morally just version of itself. There is a reason most Jews would find the data in the preceding paragraph shocking, after all…and it is not because most Jews rarely if ever open a Chumash to peruse the weekly Torah portion. Perhaps even some of my readers who are regulars in shul and who hear the Torah read to them all the time responded by wondering if those facts could possibly be true and by asking themselves if this could really be part of Judaism, this kind of bloodthirsty willingness to punish people for sleeping with the wrong people or for making the kinds of decisions that Western society considers to be wholly reasonable for individuals to make for themselves without reference to the wishes of others.

It’s a good question, one I would normally hesitate to answer in public. But given the story about the Taliban that appeared on the front page last week, I feel emboldened to express myself on the issue directly.

By rabbinic times, our leaders had lost their taste for biblical legislation of this specific sort. Executions were almost never carried out. Rules were enacted that made it almost unimaginable that anyone could ever be executed…including for sins and crimes for which the Torah unambiguously decrees death. There must be witnesses to the act. That much must seem obvious, but there must also be witnesses who can attest in court that the individual or individuals involved were formally warned that the act in which they were about to engage is forbidden and could be punished by execution. And then the people involved have to make a formal declaration admitting that they know that and that they understand that and that they are going to proceed in the commission of their sin or their crime anyway. By the time our rabbis were done there was almost no possibility that anyone would ever face death by stoning for making what moderns would consider wholly private and personal decisions. And, indeed, by the time Maimonides created his magisterial compendium of Jewish law in the twelfth century, he could include a long section detailing the specific methods of execution ordained by Scripture for each specific sin or crime listed in the Torah secure in the knowledge that no one was actually ever to be put to death for any of them.

It would be easy to view this as a tragedy, of course, by noting that Jews lived by then under the rule of others, that there were no Jewish autonomous courts with the authority to put the Torah’s teachings into real practice. But that would only be one way to look at the situation and another would be to see the Jewish people clinging to their Torah as a tree of life not by slavishly insisting that its every rule must be followed literally, but by allowing us to focus legislation our tradition considers not merely sacred but divine through the prism of our own moral bearing, thus becoming true partners with God in the creation of a just society rooted in holy law yet ever-responsive to the evolving sense of right-and-wrong we bring to our spiritual lives.

The Taliban are literalists who don’t see why any practice ordained by traditional Muslim law should not be taken literally and acted upon as though it were ipso facto just merely by virtue of its appearance in a sacred book. And, of course, there are Jewish fundamentalists who argue the parallel version of that same argument with respect to Jewish law. Yet when the Jewish state was proclaimed in 1948, the great leaders of our people understood that not only would it have been impractical to take, say, Rambam’s code literally as the basis for the Israeli law, but that doing so would also have constituted a kind of betrayal of fundamental Jewish values: we are called upon to be partners with God not only in the ongoing work of sustaining the physical world, but also to be partners with God in the ongoing work of making divine revelation meaningful and responsive to an ever-evolving moral standard. I hope we are all in agreement that adultery is a bad thing, something that should be considered sinful by its very nature. But I believe that we need to take the lessons tradition teaches to heart…not by strangling adulterers but by understanding that the Bible uses that kind of violent language to express its sense that the betrayal of a spouse’s trust is not only wrong technically but a moral outrage that decent people should condemn loudly and clearly. (Does that sound obvious? When the governor of New York State publicly admitted upon coming to office that both he and his wife had previously committed adultery, he was widely praised for being forthright and frank about his and his wife’s past indiscretions.)

Like all of you I’m sure, I found it difficult even to read Khayyam and Siddiqa’s story to the end. Those of you who read Khaled Hosseini’s marvelous book, The Kite Runner, were exposed to a detailed description of how exactly execution by stoning is carried out in Afghanistan. (The book, if any of you haven’t read it, is wonderful and I recommend it highly. But there are passages in it that are so brutal that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the page without looking away.) Was this specific execution like the one in the book? I suppose it must have been, at least partially. But the point is not specifically to lament the horrific fate of this couple whose crime was to fall in love, but to wonder what it will take for people whose vision of Islam is so extreme and so violent to come to realize that the true test of fidelity to God’s word is not slavish obedience to the text as once written, but to the moral voice within as filtered through the medium of revelation. Like I said, we Jews have our own fanatics to deal with…but at least I can say with pride that the Jewish people as a whole has accepted the obligation to allow its faith to grow, generation by generation, into a new and finer version of itself. Will the members of other faiths join us in that particular way of understanding how religion should work in the world? I suppose that remains to be seen!

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