Gov. George Ryan’s courageous decision to grant clemency to all 167 inmates on Illinois’ death row will probably go down in United States history as a turning point in the national debate on capital punishment. Although Gov. Ryan’s decision was clearly based primarily on the overwhelming evidence that the current system of deciding who shall live and who shall die in Illinois is, in his words, “deeply flawed” and filled with injustice, arbitrariness and profoundly troubling inconsistencies, the decision itself may very well spark a national reconsidering of the spiritual inconsistencies of capital punishment as well.

As a rabbi I am frequently presented with literal interpretations of the Hebrew Bible’s infamous declaration that retribution ought to be “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Yet those who have truly studied the ancient Hebrew scriptures know that the very same section of the Bible insists that a man can be put to death only on the direct, eyewitness testimony of two valid witnesses and mere circumstantial evidence was specifically forbidden in Jewish law. In fact, the idea of society diminishing and doing violence to the image of God that lies within every human being by putting a person to death was so repugnant to the ancient Jewish sages that the traditional Jewish laws of capital punishment required not only two eyewitnesses, but that the witnesses forewarned the accused that the penalty for the crime that he or she was about to commit was death and the defendant had to verbally acknowledge that he or she understood in advance.

The taking of human life, even by society as a whole was so morally repugnant to these ancient sages that Jewish tradition taught that a court that executed one person in seventy years was called “a murderous court.”

Instead the fundamental principle that has formed the core of Jewish ethics for over 3,000 years is the idea that every human being is created in the image of God and that “reverence for life” is our highest value.

Likewise for many of us in the rabbinic community today, the idea of public executions of human beings as an accepted way for our society to respond to brutality and murder creates the spectacle of reducing society as a whole to the level of the murderers and brutalizers. Not only is the very process of execution itself inevitably cruel, inhumane, degrading of the spiritual nature with which we view all human beings, but it is fundamentally not the vision of civilization that I want to hold up as a model to the rest of the world, let alone for my own children.

I applaud Gov. Ryan for his moral courage and am reminded of the prescient words of George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “It is the deed that preaches not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.”