Saturday, August 20, 2011

Prison Vs. Flogging

Growing up in England, corporal punishment by schoolteachers was considered perfectly ordinary. I recall having my hand slapped with a ruler on several occasions, and when I once (at the age of ten) committed the severe infraction of running on the school lawn, the headmaster walloped my backside with a gym shoe!

Today, such corporal punishment by teachers is unthinkable. And in Israel, it is illegal even for parents to ever use corporal punishment on their children!

This is a powerful example of the transient nature of morality discussed in yesterday's post. It came to mind when a reader sent me this fascinating and thoughtful article about flogging vs. imprisonment. The author, a non-Orthodox professor of Jewish studies, is commenting upon a new book that argues for a return to the system of flogging in place of the failed system of imprisonment. He notes that he was initially horrified, but then realized that it was only his cultural bias that caused him to react in that way. The Torah, and Chazal, clearly supported the practice of flogging, and he concludes that it might well be appropriate to bring it back.

All I can say is that I never ran on the school lawn again!

(Hat-tip: HaRazieli)


  1. Are you sure about the law here in Israel? Quite frankly it doesn't make much sense that it's illegal here for me to spank my kids, when severe violence occurs on regular basis in the public schools with hardly a peep from the authorities...

  2. Technological advancement makes the bringing back of flogging more realistic. Now flogging can be monitored in such an exacting manner by camera that excesses of the past can be prevented. Flogging can assist in returning discipline to the schools and provide a more efficient and cost-effective punishment than imprisonment for certain types of crimes.

    There is clearly a need for us to rise above our cultural biases and do that which is good for society.

  3. I'm not terribly impressed with the article you linked to. Unless there are statistics to show that beating (let's call it what it really is) is any more effective than prison then its very difficult to make an argument for a punishment that, "...can disfigure, shame, and be excruciatingly painful...".

    Furthermore, just using the US prison system as a benchmark may also be misleading. Are there other systems that are more effective? (I'll bet there won't be any Israeli Yeshiva guys bringing unseen "antiques" to Japan anytime soon.)

    Maybe you never ran on the school lawn again, but I wouldn't be surprised if a bunch of your schoolmates are abusing their spouses/children.

  4. When I was in a Yeshiva Ketanah in NYC(considered to be a progressive one, whatever that means), just after WWII, I wore my new sweater that I received for Chanukah. It had a snowflake pattern with a row of reindeer on it. My teacher, Rabbi .... of a famous rabbinic family, called me up to the front of the room and asked me how many days there were in X-mass. I said I didn't know. He then took a ruler and smacked my hand twelve times, and told me never to wear that sweater again. I wonder how he knew how many days there were in X-mass?
    Obviously, many decades later the incident is still in my mind.

  5. Recent article on the topic:

  6. Can one of the two people who checked "kefira" explain why this is kefira?

    Prisons as we now know them barely existed in ancient times. Death penalties and exile were common; ancient Rome would occasionally have "proscriptions" by which an individual would not only no longer have citizenship rights, but whoever killed him would be entitled to part of the dead man's estate! One of the most famous people to die from such a proscription was the famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.

  7. Using corporal pun. as an example of changing morality is fine. Implying that the current zeitgeist against its use by most developed countries could also be subject to a reversal to the bad old days is inaccurate. Numerous studies regarding parental use of such have shown it to be ineffective overall and dangerous as well. A meta-study is found here.

    The article questioning whether flogging might be a better alternative to imprisonment is based on false assumptions. It states for example that Prisons only make sense if one believes that humans can be “rehabilitated,”
    That is ridiculous. Prison also serves to protect society from those that would do it harm. Even if we were certain that not a single rapist nor murderer would be rehabilitated, their presence behind bars protects society from them. Further, one of the reasons our prison population is so high is that we imprison people for victimless crimes which shouldn't be crimes at all. Drug and prostitution offenses for example result in many of our incarcerations. Flogging may have been a necessity when it was the only viable option. Either because resources were unavailable for long term imprisonment, or because a minority community like the jews weren't in control of the judicial system in the places they lived. It will never be used again in rational societies which aren't governed by or influenced by religious culture.
    I understand the desire to defend and justify the torah's sense of morality by implying that our current moral judgements are subject to change and guaranteed to evolve, but the movement is unidirectional towards equal treatment of all, and understanding that choices people make which don't directly affect others negatively should not be viewed as illegal or immoral.
    We will not be seeing womens right to vote revoked in 50 years. Neither will we see women being prohibited from being witnesses, judges or leaders. We will not be imposing capital punishment on homosexuals either. The trend is decidely against that which is prescribed in the torah.

  8. HaRazieli and all the flogging affectionados, please tell me for what crimes, besides walking on the grass, do you recommend flogging instead of incarceration?

  9. In Texas in the 190s "paddling" was a normal punishment in public schools. Don't know if it's still used today, but I wouldn't be surprised. Anyway, look at the conservative "religious" morality of Texas governor Rick Perry :(

  10. Wait, in England lawns are not for running?

  11. Well, it's nice to know that some of the ultra-chassidic yeshivos in Brooklyn, for example, are morally ahead of the times. In these institutions, corporal punishment is as much a part of daily reality as permed payos (another marvel).

  12. I checked kfira because I think flogging is a lousy idea.

  13. Ah-pee-chorus said:
    ' The trend is decidedly against that which is prescribed in the torah.'

    The trend is in the spirit of Torah. Otherwise you are right about rational society.

    HaRazieli said:
    'Flogging can assist in returning discipline to the schools'. Schools? For what offenses and what age groups? Weren't we talking about flogging vs prison? Why not just flog everyone to set them straight in life?

    I live in Boro Park and have heard of a lot of terrible beatings kids received in 'Der Haim'. Many were affected for life. For many learning became associated with torture and they don't open a sefer. Some went off the derech.

    This high-tech flogging is the most retarded idea that I have seen on this otherwise excellent blog.

  14. A nice discussion (Orthodox) of the issue of corporal punishment can be found here:

  15. 1) Gosh, the outcry against slapping/flogging is truly astonishing. I love how everyone assumes that kids who are hit turn into pyschologically damaged human beings. As opposed to all the outstanding moral and honorable citizens that come from homes where hitting was taboo.

    2) The law in Israel against slapping is horrific and verges on totalitarianism. Right or wrong (and I think in certain circumstances, hitting is extremely appropriate), the government should have no business telling parents what to do except in the most extreme of circumstances.

    3) Flogging as a societal form of punishment is an interesting idea to ponder.

    On a related note, I once read that studies show that the biggest deterrent to crime is the amount of time between the crime and the punishment. Apparently a less harsh punishment swiftly given deters criminals more than a harsh punishment given much later.

  16. Carol said...

    The trend is in the spirit of Torah. Otherwise you are right about rational society.

    Can you cite some examples where the moral shift is trending in the direction of or spirit of the torah? Because there are many areas in which the opposite is true. The trend is against the spirit of torah and towards a higher moral plane.

  17. Yehudah said:

    I love how everyone assumes that kids who are hit turn into pyschologically damaged human beings.

    Did you research the studies on the topic? On what grounds do you reject the meta-study I linked to earlier?
    It showed that in every one of the consequences measured, which included the psychological effects on the kids, the results were negative for corporal pun. The one exception was that it predictably had a better chance of deterring a repeat of the action which led to the beating, while in the parent's presence. The jury is not deliberating. Hitting is wrong morally, and has negative consequences versus other responses.

  18. Prison has been shown to be quite ineffective as a deterrent. Recidivism is really high. In the maximum security prisons, the brutality among the prisoners and of the wardens toward the prisoners is really appalling. In other prisons, including juvenile prisons, the prisoners come out even worse because of the influence of all the other prisoners.

    The Torah had the right idea, for example, fines. Let non-violent thieves pay people back all damages, and make steep fines for prostitution and drug use and crimes like those. (Fines are also better for the economy than prison, no?)

    For drunk driving, you fine them and temporarily take away their driver's license, although people do repeat. That's actually a crime for which flogging might be a good deterrent. Also certain types of repeat criminals, like a non-violent thief who just can't stop, might benefit from being flogged.

    The point about cultural bias is a good one. What the boys in Japan are enduring is not kinder than flogging. Lengthy sentences in American prisons aren't kinder than flogging. (And, of course, it all depends what kind of flogging...)

  19. A friend of mine wrote about his for the Boston Globe almost 15 years ago.

    Jeff Jacoby: Bring Back Flogging

  20. To me the spirit of Torah is monotheism and Humanity. I see the world moving in that direction and getting better. For example: Geneva Convention, the spread of monotheistic religions, no wars among the democratic nations for the last 60 years.

  21. "ah-pee-chorus said...

    Carol said...

    The trend is in the spirit of Torah. Otherwise you are right about rational society.

    Can you cite some examples where the moral shift is trending in the direction of or spirit of the torah? Because there are many areas in which the opposite is true. The trend is against the spirit of torah and towards a higher moral plane."

    Well Western Culture got its basic concept and inspiration for morality from the Torah. The one who needs to give example is you. What's the higher moral frame? Is any of it inspired also by what was set by the Torah? What makes it higher? Would you even be discussing morality in the way that you are if not for the Torah? Have the prophets including Moshe provided no inspiration and guidance to humanity?

  22. Right, because locking up young kids until they're too old to restart their lives, while exposing them to the scum of society, is so much more moral than a quick whupping on the tush.

  23. Burglary is an example of a crime which should require both compensation to the victim and flogging.

  24. >>>> The Torah had the right idea, for example, fines.

    What right idea …. There is very little criminal punishment in the Torah and very little fines. No punishment at all for assault, for armed robbery, a token fine for rape, nothing for lying, cheating, etc.

    And the rabbis go and make it less/worse by virtually taking the death penalty off the table.

  25. To understand flogging in terms of statistics and society's limited understanding of rehabilitative and appeasing punishments against the Torah's prescription of flogging is incorrect. I read this blog a lot, and I love that a Rav is answering many questions many of us have. But we must be very clear that Orthodox Judaism has a heritage, and we cannot pretend or will ourselves to believe that humanity has grown passed simple flogging. Being a Jew means Hashem gets to decide. We say, we will do it, and we will listen. The discussion has to be about trying to understand that our society limits our minds to certain possible truths. Lashes is not something I could easily receive, give out, or even watch, but I know that if Hashem says this is how we repent, then that is the end of the discussion for me. I also want to kind of put it into a perspective a bit more; lashes was administered to people who did a sin that gave someone 'Kares', basically sins that are antithetical to Judaism, as an individual and as a group. The scenario's where the Rabbanim instituted it for other things, this could possibly be up for debate depending on the times and places, societal context and the like. But if someone takes a moment and thinks about Judaism and looks at the situations that Hashem tells us results in Kares, I don't really have a problem with flogging, and I think that the enter discussion is another instance where Hashem knows best, and our bias and limited mental capacity leads us to falsehood. I just think, have to be clear where the lines are. I think our society would be quite scared of flogging, and I don't need statistics to show me that. I also think we shouldn't use it in every case, because the punishment is for particular crimes. And the only discussion that should be happening in dismissing flogging as a punishment is only in the area where Rabbanim decided to institute it in other places, but in all other cases, we derive flogging from the Torah. We derive all instances of Kares from the Torah. And the Torah tells us to flog Jews who commit them.

    I hope my thoughts on the topic are helpful and not otherwise.

    Best wishes,

  26. HaRazieli said:

    'Burglary is an example of a crime which should require both compensation to the victim and flogging.'

    I was a juror on a murder trial that lasted 11 days. It was a burglary gone bad. They panicked and killed a 56 year old lady for less than $1000 worth of stuff. We found them guilty and they got 25 years in jail. It came out during the trial that it was not their first offense. The oldest was 21. Had they not killed that lady and left her to bleed to death they should've gotten a quick high-tech whipping on the tush and how much of a fine? HaRazieli, Garnel, let's hear from you.

    What's wrong with piutting all these criminals to forced labor instead of letting them pump iron and watch TV the whole day?

  27. In theory, beating as a punishment has no other purpose than getting people to think twice before sinning. I wonder if you never ran across the lawn again because you thought it was inappropriate, or because you were scared of getting beaten again. If it's the latter, then your educator has accomplished nothing.

  28. To Aaron:

    First please note, Malkot was administered for all non-capital negative commandments (except those that could be rectified by a positive commandment), not just in lieu of Koret.

    I truly do not wish to get into a theological debate, but I take great issue in your flippant use of the “will of Hashem”. I certainly don’t know if the application of malkot is “the will of Hashem”. I accept Rabbinical interpretation of the Torah as part of my acceptance of Judaism. But I also balance this by seeing what the Torah says on matters, literally. (Ein Mikra yotze m'pshuto)

    So, as its is my understanding that generallly the Torah tells us that the “will of Hashem” is for the people to establish a court system with judges and teachers that are to administer justice using wisdom (chochma) and discernment (Bina). And that applies to deciding when and what kinds of punishments are to be meted out.

    Also, Malkot is mentioned (i think, only once in the Torah) in Deut. 25:1-3, and reading the text and the context, it is clear (at least to me) that the Torah meant for Malkot to be decided by the court.

  29. True, flogging may be more "effective" than jail, but most people in a free society (myself included) would not want to live in such a place.

    There is a reason that flogging only occurs nowadays in totalitarian-type societies. Because most of humanity would not vote for such a thing!

    However there's a difference here between adults and children. Meaning, you can still call yourself a free, enlightened society and practice limited corporal punishment with children. That is just where we're at.

    And why is "where we're at" a litmus test for right action? Isn't that placing too much weight on the relative morality of the time?

    No, because there is an importance to merely identifying as "free", "enlightened" and "benevolent" - even if those are relative terms.

    For this reason (and a host of others!), a free society can't go back to slavery - even if it could be proven statistically to "work" economically, socially, etc. Neither could a free society have reasonably abolished slavery at a time when it was so ingrained as to be perfectly acceptable.

    Everything in its time. Flogging had its day. But that day is gone.

  30. I should add that Torah society is internally conflicted as to whether to identify as part of the "free and enlightened" world. This is probably the main sticking point between "left" and "right" religiously.

    Islam of course is in the same boat re: free society -- only it's not just a question of whether to adapt to it or be steadfast -- it's whether to allow it to exist altogether.

  31. To Hit someone is, for lack of a better word, is to abuse someone.

    A person lacking patience cannot teach. Avos 2:5.

    There are times when a person/child is more perceptive to instruction, and there are times when they are more for mischief.
    Without having patience to wait out a child's mischievous stages, so called teachers resort to hitting/abusing.

    On the other hand, Corporal punishment ( I believe this goes for all who are engaged ) is a sexual fantasy for the teachers, but for the childern, by any other name, is sexual abuse.

    Regrettably as we all are aware. Everyday there are childern being sexually abused in the school system, and Corporal punishment is just a word used to legitimize and to disguise this type of sexual abuse.

    One dose not grow up to become the person they were taught to be, but rather, one becomes the person they were conditioned to be. E.g. If you treat a child like an animal, it would grow up and act like an animal.

    Also, most teachers say. (sometimes, without even knowing it) "Do as I say, not as I do". This to is a form of abuse.

  32. Carol,

    The moment the burglar uses violence that would seem to be enough of a reason for him to need a punishment beyond mere flogging.

    Btw, here's another flogging candidate. Someone who runs a red light without hurting anyone....

  33. Isaac,

    Flogging is flogging. Sexual abuse is sexual abuse.

  34. David Meir,

    Judaism stands in the center of the spectrum of world values. We are not the free-for-all that is the West and we are not the barbarism of Islam. As we consider that which is the correct posture to adopt let us remember that and not instinctively lean in a knee-jerk manner towards one orientation.

  35. Yeedle,

    Training during childhood is all about instilling habits into a child. It doesn't make a difference if a kid doesn't say "shut up" to his parents (to pick an extreme example) because he knows it's wrong or because he will be slapped (and it's always a mixture -- because being slapped means that people you love deeply disapprove of something you did and that message comes across loud and clear). What matters is that if he never says "shut up" during his entire childhood he is quite unlikely to suddenly start saying it when he's not afraid of being slapped.

  36. To Apikorus,

    I am skeptical of many social science studies. Data in general can be manipulated a million ways. But aside from that, exactly how would you test if I would be a better or more moral or nicer person if my parents had not spanked me as a youngster?

    In hard sciences we have cold, hard data that we can control, leaving only one variable -- the one we test. The equivalent in social sciences would be to clone me and have me being raised by the same exact parents under the same exact circumstances with the only difference being that my parents would not slap this clone of mine.

    That would be a controled experiment. Of course, however, this cannot be done. So how on earth are we supposed to measure if I would have grown up to be a better person had I not been slapped?

    (As for addresing the study you cite: Again, I question experiments of these kinds ever proving anything, but leaving that aside... As you know, whenever a relation between A and B is shown, no causality is implied. If people who are slapped as youngsters have more mental issues -- whatever that means -- that doesn't mean that the slapping caused the issues. It could be that people with "issues" misbehave more and hence are slapped while mentally stable kids behave better and hence have no reason to be slapped.

    Or, perhaps people with mental "issues" slap their kids more and since they have mental issues, their kids do as well because the gene is passed on. In other words, maybe the mental issues cause the slapping, not vice versa. If so, the study would indicate nothing about mentally stable parents who slap.

    These are two alternative ways of thinking about the study's findings. I'm sure there are many other. However, to repeat, I am highly skeptical of experiements ever establishing anything in this realm for the reason I mentioned earlier.

  37. HaRazieli said:

    'Btw, here's another flogging candidate. Someone who runs a red light without hurting anyone...'

    I've got 2 on my license right now. So how much high-tech flogging should I get? How about a pedestrian walking on read light? Wouldn't it be appropriate to flog him too?

  38. For a preview of the book in question:

  39. Elemir,

    There are fines for all the crimes you mentioned, and they depend on the importance of the injury to the person. For example, injuring a professional pianist's fingers will incur a steeper fine than average. The Talmud expounds on this quite a lot.

    There are 2 different discussions occurring here. Corporal punishment of a child is different than corporal punishment of an adult for obvious reasons. I'm only addressing for adults.

    Also, please be aware of the amount of sexual & physical abuse in the maximum security prisons, and the amount of illegal activities. Just as one example -- watching the documentary "Scared Straight," I was horrified by the experiences described and at how many of the prisoners either died of AIDS in prison or were released only to die 2 years later of AIDS.

    Or in any prison, the amount of wasted years and the effect institutionalization has on a person (one of the reasons recidivism is so high). Anyone who thinks that a lengthy prison sentence is a more humane option than flogging is seriously uninformed.

  40. David Meir (HaAlexandri)August 22, 2011 at 1:27 PM


    Too true -- the Jewish people pays a price when we practice knee-jerk adoption of the norms of free-society. Likewise, when we reject those norms, we also pay a price. Which means we need to think carefully about which issues are important enough, vital enough to our essence as Jews and our viability as a community, for us to part ways with the free world. IMO, flogging is not one of them.

  41. >>>> There are fines for all the crimes you mentioned, and …. Etc.

    Tali, I think you fail to understand the distinction between a “fine” i.e.punishment and repayment of damages.

    E.G. In Jewish law, if i steal (overtly) or cheat somebody of $1000, and get caught, i simply repay the $1000. NO punishment. In secular law, I repay and get penalized.

  42. Elemir,

    You're right; I was using "fine" as if it was synonymous with "repayment" and it's not.

    The rest of what I say still stands.

    I don't have a problem with someone repaying without further punishment, although you ignore the obligation to pay for any damages incurred.

  43. HaRazieli

    I don't think that you realize if flogging is really as effective as you say it is.

    I would suggest, that you submit yourself to a good old-fashioned flogging, for all the nonsense and insensitivity you have conveyed through you comments.

    I can assure you, that anything you would have to say after your advantageous flogging, would be deemed most seriously.

  44. Two more comments:

    1) Another way the study can be interpreted. If 60% of the kids in the study were harmed and 40% of the kids were helped, the study would still show that slapping harms kids, which of course ignores the fact that 40% (who may perhaps be different than the other kids) actually benefitted. The question then could be: What kind of conditions or kids are helped by slapping. Perhaps there's a reason why 40% were helped.

    2) Regarding slapping, flogging etc.: I find studying history to be fascinating because one discovers what people who are just as smart as you (and smarter) thought about various issues.

    To reject out of hand what smart people in different generations believed (indeed, what we almost certainly would have believed had we lived then) is, in my opinion, very arrogant.

    Furthermore, since almost all of us would have been certain that flogging is great had we lived 300 years ago, how can any of us state with absolute certainty that flogging is barbaric (no less!).

    If we don't have respect for our forbearers' opinions, at least we should have respect for our very own brains -- the very brains that would have adopted very different opinions in a different century.

  45. Isaac said... A person lacking patience cannot teach. Avos 2:5.

    Is your proof from the AUTHORITY of Avos? That's too simple. The authority of Mishlei says the opposite, 'hold the rod and spoil the child.'

    Or is your proof because YOU find it LOGICAL? Well, that's what this whole debate is about.

  46. >>> I don't have a problem with someone repaying without further punishment,

    Then in your view, you are saying that most crimes need not be punished. To my mind, not a very effective way to deter the criminally minded.

    Then Why wouldn’t the criminal try to steal…after all, worst comes to worst he simply gives the money back and tries again.

    BTW, the idea that the Torah is less then optimal in criminal matters is something I saw in a Ran many years back, although, I couldn’t for the life of me remember where exactly.

  47. "That is NOT what it says in Mishlei!"

    It says "spare the rod, hate the child"

  48. Elimer, Droshos Haran 9 IIRC. I'll check when I have time.

  49. "That is NOT what it says in Mishlei!"

    But it is what it says in Midrash Tachuma :)

  50. I would favor a happy medium- Parents: Corporal punishment is ok-
    Teachers: Hands off!

  51. I don't know if anyone is reading this anymore, but thank you, Carol for the source. Unfortunately, I don't have Drishot HaRan, but maybe someday...

    Also, Elemir, Rambam says that the 50 silver shekels paid in a case of rape cover only the rape. The rapist must also shell out for pagam, boshet, and tzaar. That is not a "token fine." Also, rape becomes a capital crime when repeated.

    Furthermore, Judaism has always had ways to deal with repeat offenders if standard punishments didn't work.

    I guess the point is that prison often isn't such a humane option (though that greatly depends on the kinds of people interred and the conditions in the prison), and it certainly hasn't proven to be a great deterrent. It's the best option for protecting society when it comes to dangerous repeat offenders whom you don't want to execute.


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