Is Society the Angel of Death? Elie Wiesel's Take

By | Nov 03, 2010
Culture, Latest, Religion

by Daniel Kieval

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16)

Elie Wiesel speaks at Wesleyan

In an address given last week at Wesleyan University, Elie Wiesel called this verse the motto of his adult life. It would have been clear even had he not said so, for his remarks, entitled “Building an Ethical Society,” never strayed from the verse’s themes of justice and responsibility. In his speech, Dr. Wiesel—Nobel Peace Laureate, author, teacher, and Moment co-founder—referred to his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, but he spoke mostly about his work as a humanitarian, and, for the first time in a public address, about his thoughts on the death penalty.

Despite his contemporary focus, Dr. Wiesel showed how heavily his past informs his values. Introducing the topic of capital punishment with his own story, Dr. Wiesel recalled the German officers who came to his small town of Sighet, Romania to deport its Jews to Auschwitz. Only two Germans were there, he said, one of whom was Adolf Eichmann, considered to be the “architect of the Holocaust” and responsible for the murder of millions of people. Seventeen years later, Dr. Wiesel was one of the journalists covering Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. It is known for being the only instance of civil execution in the State of Israel’s history.

One might expect that, given what he had lived through, Dr. Wiesel would support a death sentence in such an extraordinary circumstance, yet he referred to the execution as “an example not to be followed.” While he approved of harsh punishment—suggesting, for example, a life of hard labor—death seemed to be a category all its own.

“Society should not be the Angel of Death,” he said. “We should not be servants of death. The law should celebrate, glorify, sanctify life, always life.”


On the same night that Dr. Wiesel gave his address, the State of Arizona executed convicted murderer Jeffrey Landrigan after a contentious legal battle surrounding the safety and efficacy of the drugs to be used for lethal injection. Despite the state’s refusal to provide information about the drugs even after multiple court orders, a divided U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution to proceed. A Hofstra law professor called it “an outcome which turns simple justice upside-down,” while the New York Times published an editorial entitled “No Justification for the Death Penalty” that spoke of the law’s “huge injustice” and the “particular barbarism” of lethal injection.

Others, meanwhile, saw the verdict as a victory for law and order. Proponents of the death penalty often argue that it discourages violent crime. The Mishnah reminds us that this debate is nothing new: “Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)


Not all will agree with Dr. Wiesel’s thoughts on the death penalty. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel clearly did not; neither did the people who were happy to see Eichmann hanged, or fought to ensure the execution of Jeffrey Landrigan. We may see injustice in capital punishment—in which case Dr. Wiesel provides admirable footsteps in which to follow—but what if we don’t?

In that case, we are still called to let his motto become ours: “Do not stand idly by.” It is a sad truth that none of us has to look very hard to see injustice somewhere, whether that is in capital punishment, religious intolerance, or the devastation of our planet’s ability to support life. “Do not stand idly by” calls us to do something, anything, rather than stand on the sideline and watch, or worse, look away.

How can we reach such a commendable level of activism? Dr. Wiesel offers one answer: “We have so much information today, but information is not enough; it must become knowledge. Knowledge is also not enough; it must become sensitivity. Sensitivity is also not enough; it must become commitment. Now I have given you a plan for the rest of your life.”

8 thoughts on “Is Society the Angel of Death? Elie Wiesel's Take

  1. Rav Rena says:

    Thank you for reporting on this talk, including the fascinating nugget about Elie Wiesel’s personal connections to Eichmann. It is inspiring that given what Dr Wiesel witnessed and experienced in his life, he holds the value of human life, and our need for limits on “playing God,” higher than the need for the ultimate revenge. This man is a hero of our time!

  2. Evelyn Loeb Garfinkel says:

    This is a wonderful article about how Elie Wiesel inspires us with the lessons he learned from out of the depths of the Holocaust, and his message becomes the voice of moral reason and humanity in today’s world.

  3. fan says:

    This is beautiful article.

  4. halsara says:

    As usual Dan Kieval writes well & brings us the Jewish perspective. Our tradition, as it developed, certainly seems opposed to capital punishment. The Torah, on the other hand, calls for death for many offenses.

  5. Antonio says:

    Great post!

  6. FluffheadJ says:

    It seems to me that the idea of death as punishment is similar to many other edicts in the bible that we update in application as our knowledge grows over time, while still maintaining the spirit of the law. The presence of the death sentence in the Tanach still has much to teach us about what transgressions we should interpret as having irreversible consequences, e.g., whether or not we continue to administer death sentences in the modern era. Sometimes it seems like Jewish law is much more adept than the U.S. legal system at that sort of engaging with the legal past while not necessarily being rigidly bound to it.

  7. Greenberg the Vampire says:

    the death sentence vs. hard labor distinction is an odd one – where does he get that? while i dont necessarily disagree with his point about the death sentence being too angel-of-death-like, its a slippery slope argument towards what IS acceptable for society to impose. a life of hard labor is arguably more cruel; as, perhaps, would be a lifetime in a maximum security prison, with limited human interaction and allowed physical movement. I would challenge the holders of this position to more clearly define the moral landscape at play here.

  8. Bruce Portnoy says:

    If Jewish lives are ever perceived as having little to no value, then denying the death sentence for one who took the life of one individual, let alone 11 reinforces in the mind of haters that the killer did nothing perceived to be wrong and a life sentence may at some point in time be whittled down to something as little as time served. The killer took his victims’ remaining time away, as well.. As everything has value and under the principle of an “eye for an eye” philosophy, time taken away for ever requires the killer’s time also be taken away. Perhaps this is the appropriate blind justice necessary.

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