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Talking Torture

Rabbi Telushkin answers your questions

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.(Random House)

As we approach Yom Kippur, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin—author of Nextbook Press’s Hillel: If Not Now, When?—answers questions submitted by Tablet Magazine readers.

Is torture of Palestinian prisoners permitted by Jewish law or ethics? If so, under what conditions? Is it permissible to photograph Palestinians blindfolded or dead? Is it permissible to publish these photographs on Facebook and other such Internet sites?

One of the judicial features that set Jewish law apart from the societies surrounding it in the ancient and medieval worlds was its refraining from torturing people accused of crimes. Torture was commonly used by Roman authorities and later by institutions such as the Catholic Inquisition, because both believed that confessions were the best form of evidence. In contrast, Talmudic law forbade use of confessions in cases of serious crimes. As a result, there was no motive to torture a suspect, as there was nothing to be gained from doing so, and even Voltaire, a vicious anti-Semite who claimed that Jews sacrificed non-Jews in religious rituals, acknowledged this feature of Jewish life, albeit sarcastically: “This was the only thing lacking in the customs of the holy people.”

Having said this, and fully acknowledging that torture is a horror beyond belief and should of course be prohibited, there is one instance in which I can envisage it being moral: When it is necessary to extract information about a future crime, and time is of the essence. For example, a bomb has been set which will soon go off, and investigators need to know its location. In such cases, torturing the criminal to extract the information seems to me the moral thing to do. I once discussed this dilemma as it relates to Israel with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who acknowledged that in this very limited instance in which torture could perhaps be justified, the police authorities should have to procure the signature of a member of the Supreme Court. In that way, permission to engage in torture could not be done with full anonymity, and someone of legal prominence would have to accept responsibility for what is done. I have heard this position criticized as being naïve, that there wouldn’t be time to procure such permission. But the underlying premise is right. Someone in a position of authority should be willing to take and acknowledge responsibility—and sign his or her name—for permitting such actions.

Photographing blindfolded prisoners seems very wrong. What possible need is there to do so? And displaying dead bodies strikes me as nivul ha-met, a humiliation of the dead. It is bad for the honor of the dead, and deadening for the soul of the perpetrator.

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Apologists for torture often raise the idea of the “ticking bomb”, a situation that only happens in the movies. This hypothetical relies on the notion that the person being tortured is not a mere suspect; but a confirmed perpetrator. In real life, however, interrogators rarely know that they have the right person before them or even that a bomb exists.

For an in-depth review of Jewish law and values on torture, please check out “But Does Torture Save Lives” at

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Rabbi Telushkin:

The “ticking bomb” analogy has been used to justify torture of Palestinian prisoners by Israeli government and America’s use of torture on Muslims suspected of being involved with Al-Quaeda and Islamic insurgencies during the Bush administration.

You speak of “torturing the criminal” — people being tortured have not been given trials. They are suspects and are frequently innocent.

I followed closely news accounts of American security forces torturing Iraqi and Afghani prisoners — in many cases, it turned out that the prisoners were innocent and had been denounced by neighbors wishing to be rid of them for non-political reasons.

Here is a link to an Israeli organization fighting the use of torture by Israel’s government:

Regarding asking a Supreme Court Justice for permission to torture someone — a Supreme Court Justice could not give such permission, as torture is against U.S. law. It is even forbidden for U.S. nationals to commit torture outside the United States:—A000-.html

I think all Jews should oppose torture unconditionally, given that we have historically been subjected to so much of it.

Robin Margolis

Torture is an absolute prohibition both in terms of morality and law. The ticking bomb rationale, to which Rabbi Telushkin refers has been described as not more than a red herring, an excuse, and a fallacious argument. At best it makes for good action on cheap and banal television shows, like “24”. That being said, the argument is still alive and all too utilized, including here in Israel. the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel Issued a report in 2007 called “Ticking Bombs” which described the way that so called ticking bomb Palestinian detainees were tortured… For longer treatment of the ticking bomb issue in Israel and elsewhere See,

Many can pack the cards that cannot play. – German Proverb


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Talking Torture

Rabbi Telushkin answers your questions

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