The following speech was written by Avodah New Orleans Program Director Shosh Madick, who joined with an interfaith coalition of justice leaders, including Avodah placement organization, Promise of Justice Initiative, for a press conference at the Louisiana State Capitol to speak out against the death penalty on April 5, 2022.
In Louisiana, the death penalty is a broken process in which sentences are predicted not by the level of the crime but by the poor quality of the defense lawyers, the race of the accused or the victim, and the county and state in which the crime occurred. In the press conference, Shosh shared that time and time again, the system fails to protect the innocent, punishes the poor, and works against the Jewish values of justice and preservation of life. Read their speech in full below.
I am honored to join you as we push for the world to be one we want to exist in. My faith and Judaism is deeply bound in actions of justice, which I truly believe is an origin source of spirituality. As we ask elected officials to end the death penalty I am thankful to share my Jewish perspective and represent my community.
In the Jewish calendar we have just entered the month of Nisan, which is an incredibly holy month because the celebration of Pesach, or Passover occurs. Around the world Jews young, old, across cultures and lived experiences will sit down and tell the story of Exodus. When we sit to tell we do not tell it as a past memory, but instead proclaim: I was there, I experienced bondage and liberation. There is, as there always is, with Jewish text and ritual a lot of thoughts about the why. Why do we tell this story as our experience and not in memory of our ancestors?
A cornerstone of our faith is to live by rules and ritual derived from Torah and to also argue about why and how that should look — a practice that can take place over centuries. In my practice a Jewish life is to be spent in curiosity, with a deep question of how and why we are somewhere and if it is indeed the right place to be. As I have aged my questions around Passover have also evolved. The one I have been grappling with in the last few years is, what does mean to sit and embody this story where to gain liberation horrific plagues or atrocities must occur on the oppressive class?
In the telling of Exodus, the Hebrew word for the land of Egypt is Mitzrayim which literally translates to the narrow place. Exodus means to depart, so this is a story of leaving the narrow version of the world for the expanse.
The mishna teaches us, ” …that man was first created as one person (viz. Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and any who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.” Human life and the sanctity of it is valued over every other commandment or Jewish law.
I have grappled with what does it mean that the 10th plague, the plague that brought Jews and therefore me my freedom, was the Angel of death. What does mean to seek your justice through violence? How can that be true liberation?
After the Jews seek freedom by crossing the sea, which drowns numerous Egyptians The Talmud says, “The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states: “And they called out to each other and said” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs? This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.
“What does it mean to seek Justice through the death penalty knowing that even in a foundational piece of the Abrahamic religions freedom through death could not be universally celebrated.
It is clear to me that the plagues that occur in the narrow place are also things that can happen by human hands when we are not seeking Justice but control. Furthermore, it seems very human to believe violence can result in liberation, though we yet to see that actually function.
I understand the inclination to confuse Justice and control, it a tempting offer in our very human world, but I know true justice is possible. A justice that is sweet, connective, that acknowledges we might be individual worlds but we are bound to each other. Our job collectively, Jewish or not is too look around and question, what systems have we set up and is it time to leave. A law is not inherently just because it has been written down. The death penalty does not equal justice, but it keeps us from liberation.
To kill a human life is to destroy a world. Period. It does not matter what that human life did, our obligation is to value all human life. I believe I must relive the Exodus story to learn that we have to collectively work towards justice to be free. I look around and know I am still in the narrow place, but I also know we could work together to leave. We could build a world that angels could sing about. It cannot be easy work, but it must be work we do for the rest of our lives. That work includes bringing every living person into relationship, every world matters, just Adam did. There is no justice in the death penalty. In this month of Nissan, may we leave the death penalty behind in Mitzrayim and continue our collective journey towards justice and freedom.
Thank you for your time.