Books Social Justice

Stuck on the Shores of the Parted Sea: Mass Incarceration Through a Jewish Lens

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we invited Hilly Haber to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

During my third year of rabbinical school, I had the privilege of co-teaching two college classes at New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island. The students I worked with in the class were either serving out a sentence or detained and awaiting trial or sentencing. Every Friday, I rode the city bus from Queens across the bridge onto Rikers Island, surrounded by men, women, and children visiting their parents, children, loved ones, and friends who were detained on the island.

During our time together, we learned about and discussed the historical origins of the prison system, debated various philosophies of punishment, and armed ourselves with knowledge about today’s criminal justice system. These men were members of what Professor Andrew Skotnicki calls “the Rikers Island Campus of Manhattan College.”

In the spring of second semester, I missed a class to celebrate Passover with my family. Later, as I explained the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt to the students, I was overcome with the realization that these men, some of whom were being detained for crimes for which they had not yet been found guilty, were living, and would go on living, in a perpetual Egypt—a perpetual state of non-freedom.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly one in every thirty-one Americans lives either under correctional control in prison or jail or on probation or parole for nonviolent offenses. This shocking statistic does not even take into account the thousands of men and women who live with the permanent scar of a felony incarceration on their record or the family members of those who have been incarcerated. Across the country, a felony incarceration can lead to legalized forms of discrimination, including but not limited to denying men and women employment, housing, public benefits, the right to vote, the ability to serve on a jury, and public accommodations, all of which affect not only the person being discriminated against, but his or her family members as well. As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration in the United States has led to the creation of a caste system in which men and women who live or have lived under the control of the criminal justice system are permanently subjected to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

The Exodus narrative is an inspiring story in which the Israelites move from slavery to freedom; the statistics on mass incarceration, on the other hand, tell the dispiriting story of a people who have moved from one form of enslavement to another. While incarceration rates differ from state to state, on average, one in eleven African American adults compared with one in forty-five white adults live under correctional control.

The cycle of incarceration and recidivism fueled by racism and poverty within the United States is the Egypt in our midst.

In contrast to today’s criminal justice system, biblical and rabbinic legal structures did not utilize incarceration as a means of punishment or a way of forcing someone to remain in a permanent state of nonfreedom or exile from the community. Indeed, rather than isolate and oppress members of the community who were found guilty of committing a crime, systems of punishment outlined by the Bible and refined by the Rabbis actually sought the opposite outcome. The absence of incarceration as a form of punishment in biblical and Rabbinic texts speaks volumes. Punishment in Jewish tradition, with the exception of capital cases, functioned as a way of bringing about t’shuvah and full return to the community.

The Gemara also displays a certain empathy for those who have been imprisoned and is aware of our social responsibility toward the incarcerated, teaching that “prisoners cannot free themselves from their shackles” (BT B’rachot 5b). Today’s shackles are not limited to the walls of a prison. Once released from prison, most people are still bound by both the force of law and by stigma, forces that keep the walls of the sea from parting for millions of men, women, and children.

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes that t’shuvah atones for all sins. Maimonides’s conception of t’shuvah involves repentance, atonement, and return. Once a person has repented for his or her sins, forgiveness and reintegration into society must follow. Today’s criminal justice system, one that emphasizes punishment and surveillance over rehabilitation and reintegration, offers few opportunities for true t’shuvah—true return for those permanently sentenced to states of non-freedom.

If our Reform Jewish community takes seriously our commitment to both social justice and Jewish tradition, we must work to open new pathways for people who remain shackled in narrow places.

Hilly Haber is a fifth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in New York City. Originally from New York, Hilly holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College in religion and German Studies, and a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Hilly serves as the student Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and as a teaching assistant on a Rikers Island with Manhattan College. Hilly is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a Tisch Fellow.  She is also a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order.  

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