Tortious Malediction

For S.B., who is a blessing, not a curse.

Prof. Eugene Volokh:

Prayer as Attempted Murder?

A reader asks an interesting question:

Some Christian Reconstructionists are urging their fellows to pray for the death of John McCain so that Sarah Palin will be become President. [Example here.] Are those who pray for McCain’s death guilty of attempted murder, and are those urging them to do so guilty of incitement? It seems to me that they are. Although I don’t believe that their prayers can have any effect, it seems to me that this falls into the same category as the oft-discussed firing of an unloaded gun or firing a gun into a bed that turns out to be empty. The intent to kill is present and an action has been taken in furtherance of that goal. Christians should presumably be all the more clear that this is attempted murder insofar as they believe prayer to be efficacious.

This, it seems to me, is a good illustration of the limits of analogy. It’s true that asking someone to commit murder may well constitute attempted murder (as well as the crime of solicitation). The test for attempt is generally not just that “an action has been taken in furtherance of that goal” — different jurisdictions require different amounts of conduct, but all require more than just “an action” for an attempt prosecution (as opposed to for a conspiracy prosecution, where an agreement plus an overt act, even a relatively minor one, generally suffices). But when a person has asked another human being to commit the crime, especially when he hopes that the other person will commit the act with no further help from the requester, that would usually qualify. And indeed it generally doesn’t matter if it turns out that the request couldn’t possibly work, for instance because the person asked would never commit the crime, or was accidentally given an unloaded gun, or some such.
But people aren’t the same as God, either to atheists or to religious people. One way of seeing that is that God’s action wouldn’t be illegal. To those who believe in God, as he is conceptualized by most Americans, God’s action wouldn’t even be immoral. (It’s true that some people say “If God killed people for this-and-such, he would be evil,” but usually they are people who don’t believe that God does that.) It would be within his authority as, in a sense, the ultimate sovereign of the world.
In fact, if there is an analogy here, it would probably be to a petition to the President asking him to order an assassination that he could lawfully order (or, as to the other part of the reader’s question, to exhortations to the public aimed at getting people to petition the President to order such an assassination). I would say that it’s even legal to petition the President to order assassinations that are illegal; but, as I said, there’s nothing illegal in God’s hastening someone’s death.
We could try to come up with precise constitutional foundations for this, for instance that the request to the President is protected by the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, and that a request to God is protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Or we could focus on a legal distinction between asking someone to do something that is legal for him (or Him) to do from asking a contract killer to do something that is illegal for him to do. Or we could focus more practically on the relative unlikelihood that a person who tries to cause death by prayer will switch to a gun if prayer fails. (That’s one reason we punish attempted killers even when their attempts were factually impossible, for instance because the gun is unloaded: We figure they are quite likely to try with a loaded gun next time.) But we don’t have to choose, because all these factors strongly point in the same direction, and strongly suggest that asking God to end a person’s life is very far from asking an acquaintance or a prospective contract killer to do the same.
(I should note that there has been a little judicial commentary on attempts to kill by voodoo or witchcraft, as best I can tell unanimously opposing criminal liability in such situations. See Commonwealth v. Johnson, 167 A. 344 (Pa. 1933) (Maxey, J., dissenting); Attorney General v. Sillem, 159 Eng. Rep. 178 (1863). But I’m not sure this is a perfect analogy, either, and in any event there’s not much real law on that.)

I imagine that what little law there is in this area will concern crimes such as attempted murder, as the law will generally not (at least in the modern era) recognize any actual supernatural causation of harm. Halachah, by contrast, has no general crime of attempted murder (עדים זוממין being a notable exception), but on the other hand, mainstream halachists typically do believe in the possibility of supernatural causation of harm. [In fact, contrary to what I assume is the markedly negative direction of the historical trajectory of belief in the supernatural within the secular juridical profession, belief in the supernatural is arguably more widespread among contemporary halachists than it was, say, among their medieval counterparts, during the heyday of Jewish rationalism.]

The question of the halachic liability for the causation of harm via supernatural means was first considered in a terse responsum of Rav Ya’akov Hagiz, which suggests the possibility (“אפשר”) that murder via [the utterance of] a [Divine] Name, or sorcery, is analogous to, inter alia, killing via a fired arrow, as per the Biblical expression “Their tongue is as an arrow shot out”:

שאלה ההורג נפש על ידי שם או כישוף מהו.
תשובה אפשר דכיון דבדבורו עביד מעשה הו”ל דומיא דמימר וכזורק חץ להורגו ועליהם נאמר חץ שחוט לשונם (תלים קכ”ז) [ירמיה ט:ז].1

Rav Yehudah Assad accepts this position unreservedly:

ועל דבר מי שהרג נפש מישראל על ידי שם או כישוף פשיטא מלתא דחייב כמו שהבאת בשם תשובת הלכות קטנות .. וטעמ’ נראה לי דקרא כתיב ומכה אדם יומת.
והנה במרע”ה מצינו שהכה בשבט פיו ובשפתיו המית רשע כמאז”ל ופירש”י הלהרגני אתה אומר כאשר הרגת את כו’ שהרגו בשם המפורש וכתיב ביה לשון ויך את המצרי אם כן גם כה”ג במשמע ובכלל מכה אדם יומת הוא כיון דבדיבוריה עביד מעשה היינו הורגו בידים וחייב עליו כנ”ל.2

Rav Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler) has a lengthy discussion of this general question; his conclusion distinguishes between the reliable harnessing of preexisting paranormal forces, where he strongly feels that the causation of harm is considered the invoker’s action, and the request or instigation of the Heavenly Court to impose punishment upon another, which he considers to be merely indirect causation (גרמא):

ונראה דדוקא תפלה או קללה שאינו מובטח שתפעיל [רק בהסכמת הבית דין של מעלה באותה שעה על ידי זה נענש הלה] דכל כה”ג לא מחשב מעשה של המקלל רק מעשה בית דין של מעלה אבל קללה בהאי רגע דאז כביכול זה כבר הובטח מתחילת הבריאה דזה מועיל ומשום הכי נחשב “מעשה דידיה” היינו מעשה של המקלל עצמו ולא רק כגורם שהבית דין של מעלה יענשו …
וממוצא דבר יתבאר שמכל הני דוכתי הנ”ל אין ראיה לנדון הלכות קטנות שהורג על ידי שם או כישוף דכאן כבר נגזר משמים באופן הכרחי שהשבעה כזו או כישוף כזה תהרוג ומתייחס ההריגה לאדם העושה את ההשבעה או הכישוף ומחשב רוצח גמור כדברי הלכות קטנות, ואינו דומה לכל הני דוכתי הנ”ל שהבית דין של מעלה גומרין הדבר על ידי פסק דין של מעלה והאדם הלייט אינו אלא גרמא וכנ”ל, כנלענ”ד בירורא דהאי מילתא.3

I recently gave a lecture which began with a survey of the various opinions in our tradition as to whether Balaam’s curses, and curses in general, actually have any supernatural power to cause harm, and proceeded to a discussion of the above sources on criminal and civil liability for the causation of harm via supernatural means, and related topics; a recording of it, as well as my notes on the topic, are available at the Internet Archive.

  1. שו”ת הלכות קטנות ב:צח – קשר. []
  2. תשובת מהרי”א / יהודה יעלה אוח:קצט ד”ה ועל דבר מי שהרג – קשר. []
  3. קהלות יעקב בבא קמא (הוצאה שניה: בני ברק תשמ”ח) סוף סימן מ”ה (“בדבר מזיק על ידי סגולה”) עמודים קמג-מד. ועיין חבצלת השרון (ירושלים תשס”ו) שמות עמוד לו; עם התורה מהדורא ב’ חוברת י”ג תשמ”ז עמוד יג – קשר. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *