The Murderer’s Admission
Channan Morrison, 2003
We all live a double life. There is our external world – our relationships with friends and family, our jobs, our place in society. And we have our inner world – our private thoughts and emotions, our introspections and contemplations. We are influenced by both realms, and we need them both.
One of the positive influences of the outside world is the sense of worth and respect which society bestows. The Sages placed great value on human dignity, even waiving rabbinical prohibitions when one’s dignity is at stake [see Brachot 19].
What about criminals? Do they also deserve respect and honor?
The Talmud [Makot 12b] raises an interesting question regarding people who have killed others unintentionally. The punishment for accidental manslaughter is exile to one of the designated cities of refuge.
What if the people from the city of refuge wish to honor the murderer is some way, perhaps with a public position – may he accept? Or would doing so negate the very purpose of exile? After all, one of the principle functions of exile is loss of recognition and place in society. To what extent must he bear the burden for his criminal negligence?
The Talmud answers that the murderer must state clearly, ‘I am a murderer’. His inner truth must come to the fore. He may not hide from the heinous crime he committed, albeit unintentionally. He cannot act as if the murder never took place.
The Sages derived the need for the criminal to openly admit his crime from the verse, “This is the word of the murderer.” [Deut 19] His response to the offers of society must be as one who has committed manslaughter.
The murderer may not let social honors distract him from the soul- searching which he must undertake. He needs to concentrate on his private world of inner emotions and introspection, and avoid being caught up in the rush of public life. He must reject social honors by announcing, ‘I am a murderer.’
If the people choose to accept him despite his past – then he is permitted to accept the honor. Respect from the community is a positive value which should not be denied, even from criminals. It should not be allowed to override the terrible truth of manslaughter. It should not negate or desensitize the murderer’s inner sense of justice. But if he demonstrates responsibility for his actions, and his moral sensibilities are strong and healthy , then the external influence of social acceptance and respect will be a positive factor in his final rehabilitation.
[Ayn Aya II:404]