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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.

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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.

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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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