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August 9, 2013 11:05 am

Why Judaism Opposes Torture

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Gruesome footage of an execution of Syrian Army soldiers by rebel forces. Photo: Screenshot.

Gruesome footage of an execution of Syrian Army soldiers by rebel forces. Photo: Screenshot.

Why do we humans inflict torture on each other so much? It is the worst trait of human beings, and we have been doing it from the earliest of times. In Syria, rival groups are inflicting the most indescribable and barbaric pain on each other (and let us not forget that Assad’s subhumans started torturing and castrating children).

Perhaps you have seen on YouTube the way Gadhafi was tortured and killed. If the reason for this cruelty were to try to get information that might lead to saving lives, this might arguably leave some room for mitigation. But all I see is primitive sadism and barbarism regardless of what they the victims may have inflicted on others. I am completely opposed to any torture. It says something very disturbing about those who inflict it.

Torture is not just the inflicting of pain. We can do that to ourselves in the gym. Military training often forces recruits to undergo deprivation and pain. Endurance athletes willingly drive themselves to suffer. Some sports, such as boxing and extreme fighting, are designed to cause pain and cripple. What we mean by torture is the intentional inflicting of pain by one human on another regardless of the reason. There are differences – such as torture that will inevitably lead to death where there is nothing one can do to stop or reduce the suffering, as opposed to torture that might be ended if certain goals are achieved. But they are both evil, with a long, awful history.

In the ancient times, if you conquered a king or tribe, inflicting pain was both an incentive for victory and an expression of superiority. It gave the victors total control over the vanquished. The more pain you inflicted, the happier were your gods. I won’t go into the psychological pathology of this sort of cruelty. Sometimes it was payback for resisting and avenging your own losses. But the most common aim of such torture (other than human sadism, something that has been replicated in scientific experiments) was to so terrorize one’s opponents that they would capitulate without a fight.

Romans impaled, and left to agonizing and prolonged death, hundreds of thousands of their captives to discourage revolt. Genghis Khan inflicted incredible agony on conquered cities to deter others from resisting. There was no escape, nothing one could do to stop the long, drawn-out agony.

Medieval monarchs would hang traitors, then while they were still alive, take them down and castrate them, then slice open their torsos and pull out their organs for public display. King Edward I, who expelled the Jews, was very keen on hanging, drawing, and quartering. I think we can make a connection between being an anti-Semite and being a sadist!

They were still burning female traitors in the early nineteenth century in England. Twenty thousand spectators witnessed the last one. Impose a terrible death on traitors and others will be less likely to try. That’s what Germans under Hitler did, as well as every other hell associated with that infamous era.

Just as barbaric was the torture used as part of the judicial process. If a suspected criminal survived a ducking in the river or having his body pierced or mangled, this would prove he was  either forgiven by God or in league with the devil. If he died, that was atonement or punishment. You could not win.

There is a recognizable change in a victim’s state when he knows he will die regardless. Judicial torture was only banned in England and the USA towards the end of seventeenth century. Confessions achieved through torture were, and sadly still are, often accepted throughout the so-called civilized world, although the methods are slightly less gruesome and less visibly degrading. But that’s not because we humans are any less cruel. Just that we fear public exposure. Gangsters, dictators, and ordinary evil people who feel themselves above or beyond the law continue, around the world, to torture to death thousands of ordinary human beings each year.

I suspect the survival of torture for so long owes as much to the Church as human nature. Early Christians were tortured by the Romans to such an extent it seems they thought it only fair to do the same to their enemies. The “Holy” Inquisition thought torture would eradicate its own heretics. As a sideline, it might encourage someone to convert to Christianity. The Church’s record in South America indicates pure sadism in the name if its god.

Torture persists in some Islamic and Christian societies because they were founded on the belief not only that they are the possessors of the sole truth, but also that they had a mission to force it on everyone else if they could. After all, if you think nonbelievers will burn in hell forever, aren’t you doing them a favor if a quick burn now or a slit throat is nothing in comparison?

We think we have become more civilized, but Abu Ghraib proved that, given free reign, we are not. In the West, those who still argue for torture say that it is necessary to prevent innocent people from getting killed. But the overwhelming evidence is that torture is a blunt, ineffective tool. There are far more effective ways of extracting information. Besides, someone in pain will say anything he thinks you want to hear to get it to stop.

How many Jews were murdered over the millennia for supposedly killing Christian or Muslim children to drink their blood because under torture people said whatever nonsense they thought would help? Even the hidden bomb argument that philosophers love playing with is a myth. There have been no cases where torture has revealed a hidden bomb before it could go off saving vast numbers of innocents, only in the cinema or television.

I find it instructive that for all the violence described in the Torah in regard to displacing the Canaanite tribes and for its sanction of corporal and capital punishment, there is no Biblical word for and no legal reference to torture. Killing was the swift and merciful consequence of war in those days. Corporal punishment was strictly controlled, and if there were any danger of serious injury or death, it would have been suspended.

Two thousand years ago, Rebbi Akivah excoriated a Jewish court for putting one person to death in 70 years. How many has Texas put to death this year alone?! Limbs were not hacked off under Jewish law. Nowhere is causing prolonged pain legislated for in war or peace, and certainly not judicially. Even those condemned to death (and there is a lot of support for the idea that it was very rarely used) were drugged beforehand to minimize suffering. The only cases that might contradict this are David’s treatment of conquered cities, which seem to be in the same exceptional extralegal category as his adultery.

Modern Hebrew uses “LeAnot” for “torture”, but that simply means to suffer, the same word we use for fasting on Yom Kippur and for rape. The other word “LeSaGef” is used much later to describe self-inflicted religious penance such as flagellation, something some overzealous Jews borrowed from their non-Jewish neighbors.

There have always been Israelis and Jews who have betrayed our values. Brutality is regrettable and must be condemned, even if when one faces an existential threat, it might be understandable. But we can point to a unique feature of our tradition that no major source has ever sanctioned torture. It’s a shame that those societies that came after us and who claimed to be morally more advanced and enlightened have failed to take our lead.

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  • Chaim F

    As the author writes, “free reign” in torture is unlawful and barbaric. But, controlled and disciplined torture has saved lives and should be continued in very strict and legally delineated situations in order to continue to save lives. To do otherwise is to be kind to the cruel and cruel to the innocent.


      @ Chaim F.
      The problem with torture is that it never stays controlled and disciplined. Anytime torture is allowed to be used in “grave emergencies”, every situation winds up becoming a grave emergency. Every nation in the world that has ever allowed torture has eventually used torture against it’s own population which causes greater harm to the innocent than the crimes that torture was promised to prevent ever did.

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Your lucid protest against torture, and warning to our fellow Jews and others who hold the Biblical texts as possessing authority that there is no Biblical sanction for torture in the Jewish tradition ought to be required reading in all military training programs, and in law schools.
    It struck me in this week’s portion which begins with that cry for justice, justice and ends with what seems to be among other things as well a warning about being a silent witness to murder and not coming forward to testify, having to wash one’s hands over the blood of the heifer and swear to ignorance of the crime speaks to the Biblical fear of a Jewish society losing that sense of a just society which being complicit in a crime destroys. Your remarks about torture clarify why as Americans and Jews we cannot be complicit in extreme interrogation techniques that are clearly torture despite the threats to an American or Israeli society that we value most when we perceive it as trying to be just.
    It is Dostoyevsky I believe (whose unfortunate strain of anti-Semitism is well documented) who wrote that “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Of course that remarks is meant to be read in the ironic, even comic context of a character who is repellent but it is also possibly strange gloss on the ideal of suffering as a spiritual process–which the image of the death of Jesus as painted in the Renaissance seems to have amplified. This is not the place I imagine to think about the idea of suffering as ennobling–or strengthening but I doubt that the state interrogators of the 20th century had that in mind for their victims.

    • Jeremy


      This suffering business is so deeply rooted in our Western Christian culture and yet I find it so disturbing. Of course it is in direct conflict with the Torah’s repetition of the need for Simchah not just in the ciontext of festivals but as the basis of Divine Worship ( eg Deut 28.47.)

      With regard to the Eglah Arufah, this of course, the Elders washed their hands in water over the calf, is where Pontius Pilate’s famous act comes from.My guess is that other pagan cultures including the Roman, actually washed their hands in the blood itself. Of course in our tradition that would not make sense. Only water purifies.

      We cannot escape the purloining of our ancient tradition let alone its misuse.

      Thank you as ever for your stimulating comments.

  • Jeremy

    Isn’t there a difference between suffering and torture or are they the same in some Christian theology?

    I have never believed that suffering is necessary. Just that if we are subjected to suffer we should to try to learn something from it reflectively or “put it to good use.”


    • Claude Idel


      Christian belief and culture mystify suffering as far as I understand. Concerning torture it is the official dogma of nearly all christian denominations that “christ” had to be tortured thus taking upon him “our penalty” in order to redeem all mankind. This concept is an adaptation of human sacrifice including the incorporation of the victim by a symbolic cannibalistic act which leads to forgiveness and salvation. The whole thing is not biblical, it is pagan.

  • Claude Idel

    Theologically, Christendom justifies torture, because it is the condition of redemption. Without the torture and death of “Christ”, no salvation. Of course, you might say, the symbol of the crucified man triggers pity and compassion. But I would rather say it elevates torture to I higher spiritual rank, it tears it from the realm of ordinary suffering and cruelty to the sphere of eternity.

    • Claude Idel

      Thank you for your Kind words, Claude