I confess: I became drawn in and addicted to the Casey Anthony trial. There is something captivating about this mystery — I cannot get enough. I cannot believe that she is going to allowed to go free; a mother who did not report her baby missing for 31 days! If I lived in Orlando, I would be one of those screaming protestors outside the courthouse. I am curious about how such a case would be viewed by Jewish law.
First a disclaimer: Though I too was an avid follower of the case, said to be the “biggest ratings draw in recent history” and the “social media trial of the century,” I do not claim to be an expert on the hours of testimony, nor can I display a proficiency in regard to the vast amount of evidence. That said, there are certainly Jewish values and valuable lessons that can be drawn out from the national spectacle that these proceedings have become since the disappearance of little Caylee Anthony in June of 2008.
A few issues might be considered through a Jewish lens: Can an individual be subjected to capital punishment based on circumstantial evidence? How might we grapple with cases of such family dysfunction? To what degree is it appropriate for the public to be engaged in matters of this sort? What does this case reveal about the American justice system, and as American Jews what should be our attitude to this structure?
On October 14, 2008, Casey Anthony was indicted by a grand jury on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, aggravated manslaughter of a child, and four counts of providing false information to police. On April 13, 2009, prosecutors announced they planned to seek the death penalty. To seek the death penalty is of course an extremely grave undertaking for all courts of law. Consider this classic teaching from the Mishnah in Tractate Makot, where we find a telling discussion around the pros and cons of capital punishment. Interestingly, one aspect of this Mishnah is often quoted out of context, leading people to think that capital punishment may have been exceedingly rare in Ancient Israel.
A Sanhedrin that effects an execution in seven years is branded a destructive tribunal; Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says, once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, were we members of a Sanhedrin, no person would be put to death. Thereupon Rabban Simon ben Gamliel remarked, yes and they would also multiply shedders of blood in Israel!
Here we see the tension between the feared and harsh implementation of a death penalty versus deterrence of this harsh punishment. Complicating the issue, Casey Anthony was indicted based only on circumstantial evidence. Though it is often claimed that Judaism does not recognize circumstantial evidence, but demands two witnesses and due warning in capital offenses, Rabbi J. David Bleich, authority on Jewish law and ethics, professor of Talmud, head of a postgraduate institute for the study of Talmudic jurisprudence and family law at Yeshiva University, and professor at Cardozo Law School, concludes differently. In his five-volume work, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, in the chapter “Capital Punishment in the Noachide Code,” he notes cases even in Jewish law which would allow for circumstantial evidence to be used in capital cases, but at this point in time for Jews, as well as in a non-Jewish “Noachide” court, it is not obligatory and might be set aside as a result of compelling objections. From a Jewish perspective, it was not mandatory to seek the death penalty — though it was possible if the evidence was sufficiently compelling.
On to the issue of family dysfunction. Throughout the proceedings, the bizarre dynamic of the Anthony family became painfully apparent. The renowned American philosopher, Oprah Winfrey, once remarked, “Our pain is in inverse proportion to how much we were loved as a child. If you didn’t receive love then you have a lot of dysfunction that you’re forever trying to work out.”
Cut this, clip it and hang it on your refrigerator. It is a simply put truth that cannot be denied. This does not excuse nor does it solve any issues. It merely brings some degree of clarity to the circumstances. My heart goes out to the Anthony family. Something very wrong is at its core.
What can you gain by being caught up in a case such as this? If it results in something learned, then there is worth to the compulsion. We might learn a valuable lesson through soul-searching and reflecting upon how we support our friends and community members who are struggling. How can we help friends or family to grapple openly with mental-health issues in the family? How can we provide services and counseling to victims in our community? How are our schools prepared to deal with children from complicated homes? How can we strengthen our support services and how can we, as collective community, take responsibility and action when we see cases of abuse and problematic home lives? How do we train our synagogues and school staffs to recognize the signs of abuse?
Finally, in what way do we enable ongoing abuse — even subtle abuse — in our community? When we turn away from certain behaviors for fear of taking them on, in what way are we contributing to an unhealthy situation? When we civilly enable and empower abusive and bullying personalities in our institutions for fear of “making trouble” or not being included, or for concerns over acceptance and social position, does that make us responsible? Few among us have not witnessed unacceptable behaviors in our own milieus. It is time to accept responsibility and speak up, lest another child fall victim, lest another family suffer from such dysfunction and before a whole community becomes victimized by the behaviors perpetrated by the acting out of individuals.
Finally, as an American Jew, it is gratifying to see the law upheld, to live in a society that so treasures human life and dignity and which takes seriously the death of a child and the life and well-being of every person. It is part of our role as Jewish American citizens to be involved in the welfare of our society, as the prophet Jeremiah exhorted those first exiled from Judea: “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace shall you have peace.”