Social Justice

T’shuvah in an Age of Mass-Incarceration: The Radical Possibility of True Return

Now that we have confessed our sins and beaten our chests, I propose that we, as a movement, act. Let us bring true t’shuvah into this world.

In an age of mass incarceration, in which a definable group of people, many of whom are the descendants of former slaves, live in a state of non-freedom, our belief that people can change, strive for blessing, and engage in t’shuvah is not just counter-cultural, but downright radical. When we deny someone, especially a young person, the opportunity to grow and perform t’shuvah, we not only deny that person a future, but deny our country limitless amounts of potential as well.

Throughout the year, but especially now, individually and collectively, we are pushed to take stock of our souls, to account for our sins. We are counseled to both ask for and give forgiveness, to turn back and right ourselves on a path of justice and embrace those who have returned to walk with us.

In his work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlines the process of t’shuvah as one of repentance, confession, and return. When an individual engages in the work of t’shuvah, Maimonides writes, he or she not only recognizes and seeks forgiveness for wrongdoing, but also examines, interrogates, and erases the very impulses from which the wrongdoing emerged. When confronted with the same situation again, therefore, the sin no longer arises, and the path of return is set.

Where could we, as a society, apply Maimonides concept of t’shuvah? What would notions of guilt and punishment look like in a criminal justice system founded on the possibility of return? The Rabbis of the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin address these questions through imagining a world in which t’shuvah rewrites and informs biblical notions of justice in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, the stubborn and rebellious son.

Outlined in chapter 21 of Deuteronomy, the case of the ben sorer u’moreh features a swift and exacting punishment for a son who refuses to listen to his parents. In just four verses, this young man is condemned to death by stoning, and executed before the entire community.

Hundreds of years later, the Rabbis of tractate Sanhedrin take on the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, questioning both the logic and outcome of the biblical narrative. Noting the age of the boy, the lack of any judicial process, the role of the parents in the case, and the exact nature of the crime, the Rabbis determine that this case never actually happened – no one could be condemned to death in just four verses. Why, then, the text asks, do we read about this boy?

The objections raised by the Rabbis in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh have much to teach us on the topic of t’shuvah. One of these objections, in particular, caught my eye. One Rabbi offers the possibility that he was executed at such a tender age to prevent future wrongdoing, so that he could die an innocent man. This explanation, too, however, is rejected – we cannot judge a person based on his future deeds, there exists always the possibility for t’shuvah.

In many ways, there is no possibility for movement, personal-growth, blessing, repentance, and return in our criminal justice system – as a society, we execute the ben sorer u’moreh: we sentence the child to death before giving him a chance to repent and return. For the past few months, I have been teaching a course at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, to ten men who are incarcerated at one of the facilities on the island. Together, we have been learning about the criminal justice system, and reading the book, The New Jim Crow. These men, my partners in learning, have opened my eyes to the many ways in which true repentance and return for them is almost impossible. How can we welcome back those in need of healing and return? How can we, like the Rabbis of tractate Sanhedrin, recognize the potential of the ben sorer u’moreh.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the system of mass incarceration thriving in our country today works to create an under-caste in our society; a group of people largely composed of men of color who are subject to, “a lifetime of shame, contempt, scorn, and exclusion. In this hidden world,” she writes, “discrimination is perfectly legal” (142).  Even for a first-time, non-violent offender, someone who may not even spend time in prison, the result of a conviction could mean the loss of, “federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal education assistance…if he is convicted of another crime, he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or posses a firearm, or obtain federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not, he becomes immediately deportable” (143).

When we, as a Jewish people, engage in t’shuvah and believe in our ability to remap the impulses imprinted at the very core of our beings, we open up the possibility for others to do the same. We are a people who take our souls into account, who grow and forgive, fall off the path and welcome those who have returned with us. But is this enough?  What if every congregation in America committed to hiring someone who had been incarcerated for a non-violent crime?

Now that we have confessed our sins and beaten our chests, I propose that we, as a movement, act. Let us bring true t’shuvah into this world.


Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis and is teaching at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.