The monster who murdered two people at the Kansas City JCC presents a litany of questions to followers of Judaic law.
By Rabbi Binyomin Davis
April 13, 2014. Everyone in the Kansas City Jewish community remembers where they were when they heard about the shooting in our JCC. Just as my parents’ generation remembers where they were when JFK was shot and my grandparents remember where they were when D-Day and Pearl Harbor occurred and my peers all remember the exact moment the Twin Towers went down. Even my 7-year-old daughter remembers 4/13.
Blessedly, it rained in the morning, so our JCC soccer games were canceled. Instead of being on the campus, we were home cleaning for Passover. Along with the first report of an active shooter came sirens blasting throughout our quiet Overland Park — and frantic calls, texts and Facebook posts from friends asking to pray for their children who were trapped in the building either exercising, at dance practice or auditioning for “KC Superstar,” our local talent show. Then the news rolled in: deaths reported, a second location shooting, the retirement home we visit weekly, an arrest, a neo-Nazi. The day was over, but the repercussions were just beginning.
The day that Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. brazenly walked into our Jewish community campuses and indiscriminately shot and murdered a young teen and his grandfather changed lives forever. The JCC and Village Shalom were the places we both worked, exercised, dined and the place our children went to school, where we meet friends and saw so many life cycle events, our first three children starting school, receiving their first prayer books, Torahs, where our son had his bris.
In the following few days, policies changed. Armed guards were hired. New security positions were developed. And our children learned what the face of hate looks like.
All of these emotions had diminished only slightly over the past 18 months, only to resurface when we heard the news this week that a jury has recommended that Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. receive the death penalty. Now a whole new set of emotions, thoughts and feelings have begun. Is more death really what the community needs to heal? Should he receive mercy even when he had none to give his victims? Will this serve as a deterrent to future murderers and terrorists?
As Jewish educators, when such moral and ethical questions and dilemmas arise we turn to the Torah for answers. First of all, the most notable misconception of Torah law on capital punishment comes from the famous line in the Book of Exodus discussing a fight between two Jews, says the following: “…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25). The Talmud (Bava Kama 83b-84a) deduces from the Oral Law that this verse is referring to financial damages. The Torah principle is that when someone harms someone else, the perpetrator must find a way to try to right the situation and give the fair amount of damages to the victim, not as way of seeking retribution and justice but as a practical tool in recovering a loss.
Secondly, it is well known that the Torah does in fact sanction the death penalty when certain criteria are met. It’s important to understand the circumstances, reasoning, and practicality of this aspect of Torah Law. One of the great Torah sages of our generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein states unequivocally (Igros Moshe, Chosen Mishpat, vol. 2, § 68) that unlike in current secular thought, the death penalty is not a punishment and way of making a murderer suffer just as he/she caused suffering. Judaism humbly recognizes that God is the ultimate judge of another’s actions and that is where the true judgment and punishment will be. Rather, the death penalty should serve as a deterrent to future crime and a way of teaching society which crimes should be viewed as most severe. Rabbi Feinstein further points out that there are several procedural safeguards to protect against the death penalty and to ensure that it only happens when there are a number of criteria met; all of this points to the great value Judaism places on human life.
There are many modern dilemmas that also arise. Will the appeals process cost taxpayers more money? Will a death sentence prolong the media attention and glory that this self-proclaimed neo-Nazi espouses? Will he be glorified as a martyr in his own mind and that of his like minded sympathizers? Can we make peace with the fact that he might enjoy a long life in prison? Clearly, we know he is guilty and no mistake will be made in that sense.
It seems that there are no right answers or easy solutions. The families of the victims lose either way, as do we all. What he did was beyond despicable. There are not enough adjectives to accurately describe the depravity and pain he is responsible for. He robbed three families of their precious and treasured loved ones, causing unthinkable pain. He created fear and pain throughout the entire Jewish community. For these terrible crimes there will be no retribution in this world, regardless of his sentence.
It is our sincere hope and prayer that this will be the last hate crime to speak of. That our children will feel comfortable looking and acting Jewish. That all of the added security will serve as a deterrent. And that God will bring justice and lasting peace to the world.
Rabbi Binyomin Davis is the new managing director of the Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park. His wife, Gevura, works with women, teens, college students and young professionals.