Friday, 31 July 2009

On Testimony, God and Torture


These weekly words are in honour of my sister-in-law Isabel and her fiancé, Zachary, whose aufruf will be celebrated at New London this Shabbat. Zachary is the legal director of the legal charity Reprieve, and represents a number of Guantanamo detainees.


We read, in this week's parasha, verses which are at the foundation of our faith - the Shema. Its appearance in our weekly, as opposed to our daily, liturgy gives an opportunity to focus on how these verses are written in the Torah scroll; the ayin of the word shema is oversized, as is the dalet of the word echad.


שמע ישראל יקוק אלקינו יקוק אחד


The Talmud offer two explanations, I will focus on one. The two enlarged letters, read together, produce the word 'witness.' We read the Shema as an act of testimony to our belief in one God and the notion of giving testimony in our recitation is held not only in the words, but also in the very act of scribing them.


This twin action of giving testimony to our faith by reciting the first line of the Shema is of tremendous importance in Jewish life. This is, after all, the first Biblical verse a child learns to recite, and the last verse recited before death, witnessing is also the subject of one of the ten commandments. Without the giving of testimony no act of Jewish significance can be said to have happened; weddings, sighting of the New Moon, criminal cases and more all depend on witnessing. Giving testimony is of theological import and this makes extraction of illegitimate testimony so distressing, from a religious perspective.


I listened, on Tuesday evening to the File on Four investigation into the complicity (or otherwise) of the British Government in aiding and abetting torture at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre. The claim is that questions were sent to American interrogators by the British who understood the treatment that was being meted out there.


Judaism abhors torture. It believes in legal process and the dignity of all humans, even military detainees. It also believes that self-defence,  din rodef and other halachic claims cannot, did not and do not justify the sorts of interrogation practices condoned by American and, even, British secret services. We featured an article in the 2008 volume of Quest, the New London Synagogue publication, on the subject.


But there is another safeguard against torture, in Jewish law, the notion ain adam meisim atzmo rasha – a person cannot give testimony against themselves (Sanhedrin 9b). The derivation of this absolute prohibition in Jewish law is perhaps surprising. Rava learns this principle from the Biblical verse, "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers…" (Deut. 24:16). For Rava, if a direct kinsman cannot give this evidence, how much the more so it should be evident that a person cannot give evidence against themselves. The principal is enshrined throughout Jewish jurisprudence, 'It is a scriptural decree that the court shall not put a man to death or flog him on his own testimony. This is done only on the evidence of two witnesses.' (Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 18:6) It's a far stronger bar on self-incrimination than exists in English law, of course. And its purpose, surely, is not only to protect the witness from themselves, but also to protect the society from overstepping boundaries of appropriate behaviour when interrogating suspects.


Scholars of International and American law will, I am sure, recognise the same ideas in the UN Convention on Torture or the American Constitution, but the point, in Judaism is this; the giving of testimony is a holy act. At its best, the giving of testimony is a way of proclaiming the holiness of our God and the heart, might and soul of our faith. At its worst, the illegitimate, degrading and short-sighted use of torture to extract testimonies of dubious practical worth is therefore particularly distressing and contrary to everything we, as Jews, believe in.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy Gordon


For more information on Jewish attitudes to torture, see


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