Torture and Confession in Jewish Law
Adderabbi makes note of a recent article by Rabbi J.D. Bleich on “Torture and the Ticking Bomb”. I have not read Rabbi Bleich’s article, although I am an avid viewer of the ever more unrealistic 24, but Prof. Aaron Kirschenbaum has written extensively on the legal admissibility of confessions. In a nutshell, according to Jewish Law they are worthless.
Indeed, halakhic criminal procedure may be characterized as an exercise in exoneration. A case in point is the Jewish Law of the criminal confession. Confessions, whether made in or out of court, guilty pleas, and self-incriminating statements are inadmissible. The prevailing principle is that allegations of guilty must be supported by evidence obtained from sources other than the mouth of the accused. (Kirschenbaum, “Torture, Confession…”, 2)
Whether this means that while according to Jewish Law an admission of guilt is inadmissible in a court of law, a society still believes that circumstances warrant torture, e.g. to save lives, is another question and one which should be debated. Some Jewish sources on this question can be found here (some of you may not like their politics, but IMHO they are an important voice in today’s Jewish world and it is also a very good sourcebook). A very good article about not only some of the moral questions, but also whether information gained through torture is of value, is this one by Mark Bowden. Also of value is this NY Time’s article which includes exerts from an interview with a former head of interrogation for the Shin Bet. Prof. Alan Dershowitz has spoken and written about this question and feels that at the present time, Western society must find a place within the legal system for torture. Surprisingly enough, I have found very few articles written about the question in a journal such as Tehumin. Besides one by Prof. Itamar Warhaftig in vol. 20, whose argument comes down to “anyone with information about a terrorist attack is a rodef“, I couldn’t find much else. I might have missed something and I also only checked one journal.
Aaron Kirschenbaum, Self-Incrimination in Jewish Law, Burning Bush Press, 1970.
idem, “Torture, Confession, and American Plea Bargaining: A Jewish Legal Perspective”, The Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Judaic Studies, University of Cincinnati, 1991.
idem, The Criminal Confession in Jewish Law [Hebrew], Magnes, 2004.