Why do we inflict torture on each other so much? 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 sub-humans started torturing and castrating children). 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 the victims themselves 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 calculated to cause pain. What we mean by torture is the intentional inflicting of pain by one human on another simply out of sadism or because a state or power has authorized it. There is a nuance. 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.
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 recent 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 in order 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. Perhaps there is a connection between being an anti-Semite and being a sadist! They were still burning 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 in either forgiven by God or in league with the devil. While 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 to 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 own theological enemies. The “Holy” Inquisition thought torture would eradicate its own heretics. As a sideline, it might encourage someone to convert to Christianity. Torture persists in some 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. Why is it that before they slash and kill, Muslim fanatics yell out “Allahu Akbar”, implying it is the will of their God? I guess 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, many are not. In the West those who still argue for torture say that it is necessary to prevent innocent people 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, 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 that I can think of 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 post biblically to describe self-inflicted religious penance such as flagellation, something some overzealous Jews borrowed from their non-Jewish neighbors.
We have always had those who have betrayed our values. Brutality is regrettable and must be condemned, even if where one faces an existential threat it may be understandable. Judaism can point to a unique feature that unlike other monotheist religions, no major source has ever approved of torture nor can we point to its being institutionally sanctioned. And 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.
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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