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Talking Torture

Rabbi Telushkin answers your questions

Joseph Telushkin
September 16, 2010
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.(Random House)
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.(Random House)

As we approach Yom Kippur, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin—author of Nextbook Press’s Hillel: If Not Now, When?—answers questions submitted by Tablet Magazine readers.

Is torture of Palestinian prisoners permitted by Jewish law or ethics? If so, under what conditions? Is it permissible to photograph Palestinians blindfolded or dead? Is it permissible to publish these photographs on Facebook and other such Internet sites?

One of the judicial features that set Jewish law apart from the societies surrounding it in the ancient and medieval worlds was its refraining from torturing people accused of crimes. Torture was commonly used by Roman authorities and later by institutions such as the Catholic Inquisition, because both believed that confessions were the best form of evidence. In contrast, Talmudic law forbade use of confessions in cases of serious crimes. As a result, there was no motive to torture a suspect, as there was nothing to be gained from doing so, and even Voltaire, a vicious anti-Semite who claimed that Jews sacrificed non-Jews in religious rituals, acknowledged this feature of Jewish life, albeit sarcastically: “This was the only thing lacking in the customs of the holy people.”

Having said this, and fully acknowledging that torture is a horror beyond belief and should of course be prohibited, there is one instance in which I can envisage it being moral: When it is necessary to extract information about a future crime, and time is of the essence. For example, a bomb has been set which will soon go off, and investigators need to know its location. In such cases, torturing the criminal to extract the information seems to me the moral thing to do. I once discussed this dilemma as it relates to Israel with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who acknowledged that in this very limited instance in which torture could perhaps be justified, the police authorities should have to procure the signature of a member of the Supreme Court. In that way, permission to engage in torture could not be done with full anonymity, and someone of legal prominence would have to accept responsibility for what is done. I have heard this position criticized as being naïve, that there wouldn’t be time to procure such permission. But the underlying premise is right. Someone in a position of authority should be willing to take and acknowledge responsibility—and sign his or her name—for permitting such actions.

Photographing blindfolded prisoners seems very wrong. What possible need is there to do so? And displaying dead bodies strikes me as nivul ha-met, a humiliation of the dead. It is bad for the honor of the dead, and deadening for the soul of the perpetrator.

Joseph Telushkin is the co-author with Dennis Prager of Why the Jews: The Reason for Antisemitism, the Most Accurate Predictor of Evil.

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