Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

The Tree of Life shooter is eligible for the death penalty. Only God can truly punish him

While I am grateful for the jury’s decision, no human action can repair what the shooter destroyed

When Adolf Eichmann was executed by the state of Israel on June 1, 1962, for his crimes during the Holocaust, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber told The New York Times that there can be no retribution for crimes of such magnitude. Buber stated that the crimes were so monstrous they fell outside the ordinary realm of punishment, that “for such crimes there is no penalty,” meaning that any penalty is insufficient.

When I heard the news that the perpetrator of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting — the deadliest attack on American Jews in U.S. history, which my husband, a rabbi, survived — had been found eligible to receive the death penalty, I thought of Buber’s words, and I wholeheartedly agree. No penalty is sufficient for Robert Bowers’ crime.

Obviously a man who killed 11 people and injured six is in no way comparable to the architect of the “Final Solution,” who was responsible for the murder of millions.

But I believe that the jury in Pittsburgh made the right decision in finding him eligible for the death penalty. However, I hope they do not ultimately carry out the sentence, but incarcerate him for life.

Antisemitism is not a delusion

The attorneys for the shooter argued that he should not be held accountable because he was under the delusion that he and white people in this country were under threat, and that he was compelled to act. The reality, as we found out, was more banal: the lease on his car was set to run out at the end of October, so he had to pick the final Saturday of the month to act, or else he would lose his method of transportation to the massacre.

Fortunately Ryan Darby, the psychiatrist for the prosecution, argued that Bowers himself was not a target of anything. Instead, he was operating under a number of common antisemitic tropes, rather than some kind of unique system of deluded beliefs. Park Dietz, another expert psychiatrist witness for the prosecution, said that “Widely held beliefs, even if they are held with the utmost conviction, are not delusions.” Offensive beliefs are not delusions, and there is no evidence the shooter was delusional.

I am grateful that the jury saw through arguments the shooter’s lawyer, Judy Clarke, made in court, that Bowers killed out of the “unthinkable, nonsensical, irrational thought that by killing Jews, he would attain his goal,” of preventing the genocide of his people.

This fear of white genocide is an expression of “the great replacement theory,” and is just another expression of antisemitic thought. Those who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 declared “Jews will not replace us.” Since the entire replacement theory is merely an antisemitic variant, it makes no sense to argue for it as its own belief system that is separate from one which hates Jews. Emma Green wrote in the Atlantic, “Anti-Semitism often functions as a readily available language for all manner of bigotry — a Rosetta Stone that can translate animus toward one group into a universal hate for many groups.”

The verdict proved today that this man is responsible for his behavior, that he acted with intent and malice. His common antisemitism was not excused by a false narrative of delusion or mental illness. “The oldest hatred” is based on a series of false beliefs about Jews, but the patent untruthfulness of the beliefs behind antisemitism does not excuse those who subscribe to them.

Remembering, not revenge

Despite agreeing with the verdict of the jury, I am not clamoring for Bowers’ blood. No matter what happens to the perpetrator, it can in no way bring justice. The 11 people he murdered can’t be revived to live again, and those injured cannot ever be fully healed in body and soul.

Revenge is not healthy; finding ways to honor the memories of those lost is. The Torah teaches that Pinchas, a man who murdered two people for a sin he thought was worthy of death, needed a “covenant of peace,” or a brit shalom (Numbers 25:12), as a way to ameliorate the harm done to himself by that act of murder, despite the Torah seeing it as justified. To me, this means that murder, even when justified, does harm.

Though the Torah is very much aware of the death penalty, the rabbis of the Talmud later limited its use. In recent times, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all made statements against its being carried out in the United States, an exceedingly rare show of unity in our fractured Jewish community. I believe that “hashem yikom damam,” that God will avenge their bloods, which is what we say of the deaths of those killed for being Jewish. To me, only God can avenge their deaths, and it will be done in a way that is beyond the abilities of human courts.

When I contemplate the future after the Tree of Life shooting, I think of the lyrics of Mordkhe Gebirtig, whose 1940 Yiddish song “Moments of Hope (Minutn fun Bitokhn)” ends with these words: “Jews let us be cheerful / Let them go to hell.”

The best way to punish the shooter is to take pride in being Jewish. By being cheerful as Jews, embracing the joy of Shabbat and communal life, study, and celebration, and continuing to work for social causes. The shooter told court psychiatrist Darby that he “hadn’t done enough” when he learned that one of the affected congregations, Dor Hadash, was hosting a recent bike-riding fundraiser for refugees. Doing the things the shooter does not want us to do, defying his hate and remaining unbroken, is the most effective punishment.

The best way to commemorate those lost is to not to focus on revenge but to find a meaningful way to emulate their deeds and honor them.

Mel Wax was registering voters in his building.

Rich Gottfried volunteered his skills as a dentist at the Squirrel Hill Health Center.

Dan Stein brought Israeli veterans to Pittsburgh each year, organized blood drives and gave rides to seniors as a volunteer.

The victims were all devoted shulgoers, and learning to fulfill their synagogue obligations would be a tremendous mitzvah in their honor. All of the New Light members killed were haftarah readers, a skill I have subsequently taught a number of people so that they could honor those who perished.

All of these deeds would be wonderful ways to honor those who were killed.

The Talmud in Pesachim 54b teaches that the depths of justice are one of the seven matters concealed from humans. I believe justice will eventually be done but that capital punishment by humans is not the appropriate way to generate it.

I am glad the jury found the shooter of 11 Jews of Squirrel Hill guilty and eligible for the death penalty. I hope they do not vote to carry it out.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.