The Reform Jewish Movement, like many other religious traditions, opposes the use of torture unequivocally. The most common catchphrase of Jewish social justice is undoubtedly “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Many ask of this text, “Why the repetition of the word tzedek (justice)?” It is commonly believed to be repeated to stress the importance that we must be just in our pursuit of justice; that we must have both just ends and just means.
Those who interrogate detainees seek the information that they think will bring “dangerous individuals” to justice, but there is nothing just about their means — torture. By its nature, torture occurs in the shadows of our legal system and violates the precious due process rights guaranteed to all individuals in the American justice system, and cherished by many religious traditions, including the Reform Jewish Movement.
Another basic the tenet of Jewish morality is that all individuals are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Yes, even the most dangerous among us are created in that divine image. And as such, all individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Yet, when we employ torture, we defile and disrespect that image of God.
Taking us one step farther, is renowned Jewish thinker Joseph Caro, who taught that:
If someone attacks another, the second is innocent of any responsibility for injury caused to the first, since he has a right to defend himself, but if he was able to use less force but caused greater injury then he is guilty.
What does this mean in the case of torture? It means that while we have a right to defend ourselves, if we must harm another to do so, we must cause as little harm as possible, a sort of proportional response theory. Because torture is an ineffective means of defending ourselves against our attackers, those who inflict greater physical and psychological injury than is necessary in turn become guilty.
The question of torture is one in which we not only have efficacy and truth on our side, but also morality. In the words of former Navy Judge Advocate General Rear Admiral John Hutson:
In a war like this, when we are tempted to respond in kind, we must hold ever more dearly to the values that make us Americans. Torture or “cruel, inhuman or degrading” conduct, are not part of our national character.
We must move forward and look to our future, but take care to understand our past and how these abuses occurred for so long in order to ensure that torture is never again used in America’s name.
Arielle Gingold is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews.