Parashat Emor 5777

Rabbi Rebecca Birk, 12 May 2017

…fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury inflicted on another shall be inflicted in return.” (Leviticus 24:20)

What happened to Adolf Eichmann after his trial one of my children asked the other day after Yom HaShoah. We were talking about the death penalty. And the enormous murder laid at his door. His trial was amomentous moment in Jewish history. It was May 1960, Israeli Security Service agents seized Eichmann, known as Ricardo Klement by then in Argentina, and took him to Jerusalem for trial in an Israeli court. Eichmann testified from a bulletproof glass booth. Presumably because of possible vigilante attacks.

The trial aroused international interest, bringing Nazi atrocities to the forefront of world news. Testimonies of Holocaust survivors, generated interest in Jewish resistance. The trial prompted a new openness in Israel; many Holocaust survivors felt able to share their experiences as the country confronted this traumatic chapter.

Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. He was sentenced to death. On June 1, 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging. His body was cremated and the ashes were spread at sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters. The execution of Adolf Eichmann remains the only time that Israel has enacted a death sentence.

It became quickly apparent that it was not the death of Eichmann that was so fiercely desired but the trial itself and the judgment after the hearing. It was much remembered that Eichmann had displayed no reaction to his charges and during his trial.

This verse is understood as referring to financial retribution. Lex talionis, Roman law of retaliation is based on the principle that the punishment must fit the crime.

Maimonides anticipated the cathartic befits of admission and acknowledgement of guilt. 

No compensation is complete, no wrong forgiven until the person …requests the victim’s forgiveness and has been forgiven.” Mishneh Torah: Nezikin; Hovel u-Mazik 5,9

Reinhold Hanning, a 92 year old former Nazi SS officer, was tried last year in Detmold and charged with being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people. Silent for all of the four week trial, although willed by the defendants to say something, he did finally speak…
I want to tell you that I deeply regret having been part of a criminal organization that is responsible for the death of many innocent people, for the destruction of countless families, for misery, torment and suffering on the side of the victims and their relatives”.
I have remained silent for a long time, I have remained silent all of my life.” he added.

If this verse of Torah teaches anything in these millennia after it was written, it is that acknowledgement of a crime is more important than the punishment for it. Courts, trials and dignified processes of legal response have done much to elevate and develop humanity. We are witnesses to that. 

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