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‘Talmud vs. Torture’—a Jewish perspective on ‘enhanced interrogation’

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 30, 2009 | 3:44 pm

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about whether the United States does or doesn’t use torture to get the information it wants. Anti-torture activists are marching in Washington today, demanding a criminal investigation of members of the Bush administration; President Obama talked about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation” during his 100-days address last night. But religious leaders haven’t had much to say.

“That’s in part the fault of a media that tends to ‘get’ religion only when expressed as either innocuous spirituality — the stuff of inspirational tales in the Saturday paper — or dangerous fanaticism, perfume or mustard gas,” Jeff Sharlet wrote yesterday at Killing the Buddha. “But it’s also in part the fault of religious leaders who’ve failed to draw a bright and shining line between their faiths and torture — that is, who’ve been too timid to ask their congregations, often split between supporters and opponents of U.S. policy, ‘Which side are you on?’ That’s why Rabbi Ben Weiner’s article for Religion Dispatches, ‘Talmud vs. Torture,’ is so important.”

Weiner is a Reconstructionist rabbi and writer. Here’s an excerpt from his article:

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.

P.S. I don’t recommend doing a Google Image search for “torture” and “Abu Ghraib.”

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