Letter from a Murdererby Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
We read this week the most famous, the best known, the most told tale in all of the Torah. It is the story of creation, the shaping of the universe, the Garden of Eden, the eating of a fruit, exile from paradise, the transition of Adam and Eve from demi-gods to the foundation of human life as we know it and experience it in our lives. And then, east of Eden, a new generation, scratching out a livelihood, competing between farmer and shepherd, struggling to define a relationship between siblings, we read the story of the world’s first murder.
Which reminds me of something which happened to me, just a few years ago. I went out to the end of the driveway and got the mail. I sorted through the usual assortment, but then I noticed a hand-scrawled missive, with a strange return address. There, in between the bills and the advertisements, stuck next to a flyer and a card for dry cleaning or lawn care, was a letter from a murderer. And, in the days following receiving it, I started to lose sleep.
Not that the letter was threatening in any personal way. No, it was merely threatening to my sense of order in the universe. How did it happen, that I got a letter from a murderer? Well, some time before that, I had written an article, and used it for what was then my weekly AOL column. The article, posted in an updated form on our templeshalom.net website, was called "The Kaddish and the Grateful Dead." The piece was picked up and reprinted by Gil Mann, in his publication Being Jewish.
And that is why I got the letter. In the column, I tried to spell out some of the background assumptions behind the development of the Kaddish as a mourner's prayer, and to do so I needed to touch on the elusive and little-known Jewish views of life after death. At the time, I wrote the following words:
"Although we speak about it much less than they do in Christianity, classical Judaism does have a view of the afterlife. It is a world to come where righteous people of all monotheistic faiths will find themselves in a sort of waiting room in the sky called limbo. Hence the lack of proselytizing in Judaism: we do not need to save anyone’s souls if they are already good people.
Not defined anywhere in detail in our tradition, nevertheless this intermediate stage is apparently seen as a place for us to wait before final judgment—a place where the sins of our life are purged. [The waiting period is seen to be a year for the worst of us... hence the custom of saying Kaddish for only eleven months for a loved one. The Kaddish, a praise of God, said in the name of someone we care about, is said to, well, help ease the dear departed along into his or her permanent abode in the World to Come. So, we say the prayer for 11 months. After all, they may have hidden sins we knew nothing about, so six months is risky, but our loved ones couldn’t need the full year to move on. Not our beloved.
Now comes the part that inspired an inmate to cry out in pain. “The ultimate evildoers,” I wrote, “(murderers, rapists, idolaters) will not be admitted to the world to come. Nor, however, will they be punished forever. They will simply cease to be."
Now, I stand by those words. They are an accurate description of what our tradition has to say on this subject. Only I suppose, in hindsight, it is important to emphasize that this part of our tradition is highly speculative. It is not a mandated belief. Well, actually, that’s an oversimplification. There are strands of our tradition that do seek to require this belief. The rabbis of the Talmud asserted that one who denies that the concept of resurrection of the dead is rooted in the Torah—which, by the way, it is not—is denied a place in the world to come. (I love this. It’s like saying if you don’t believe in the afterlife you aren’t going to get there.) But, I still see this discussion of the afterlife as Jewish lore—it is still not on the same level as Jewish law.
Whatever the exact status of this eschatological speculation in Jewish tradition—integral part of the system or late-night theorizing 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. Then comes this letter, with the following challenge:
What do we say, to such a letter? My immediate response was a bit defensive. 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.
But, my quick response begs the question. The real issue here is a profound challenge. What does Judaism have to say... to a repentant murderer? So I turn, now, to you. What would you say? And, what do you think Jewish tradition would say to a shedder of blood, who comes to God with broken heart and contrite spirit?
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. Please. Does anyone else have the same problem with this that I do? Never mind that forgiveness is a two-way street, that is supposed to be an end product of a period of repentance and reconciliation, that it is utterly meaningless (at least, the way we Jews think of it) absent an expression of remorse and regret. No, the problem goes even deeper than the fact that McVeigh might still do the same thing all over again. Even if he McVeigh were sorry, and even if Bud Welch can go on with his life—for which, by the way, I am glad, for I cannot imagine his pain, nor how hard his own spiritual journey has been, still—even if Bud Welch wants to go on, it isn't in Bud Welch's hands to grant forgiveness.
The problem with murder is this. Forgiveness must come from the one we have offended. Guess what. Kill someone, and they can't forgive you. Not in this world. Not in this life. Sorry, Charlie. You can't make murder OK. 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 Eichmann, in Israel. You remember Eichmann 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 Eichmann, to speak with him before the execution. A reporter who was a Holocaust survivor confronted the pastor afterwards: "What happened? Will Eichmann 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 Eichmann 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—except for the three categories I mentioned in my article: 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 alone is able to sort out. And maybe...just maybe... we can stretch the case... to cover even a repentant murderer.
Then I came across this, from a Chasidic source. When a murderer dies, his or her parents and children say Kaddish for the deceased, their close relative, their loved one who has sinned... for eleven months. For once again: who are we to judge what God will do, at the end of days, at the time of reckoning?
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.