Question: In what ways do Jewish values address incarceration, and particularly prisoner wages for work done? In the USA, federal and state prisons "employ" prisoners at very low wages ($0.25-2.00 per hour) for work both inside and supervised work outside the prisons.What does Judaism say about treatment of prisoners?
Jewish sources say surprisingly little about prisons and prisoner treatment, because imprisonment is not a traditional form of punishment in the Jewish legal system. The Bible and later rabbinic literature make only passing references to incarceration as a very temporary measure prior to sentencing, mostly in capital cases. The closest halakhic sources come to addressing imprisonment and prisoners’ rights is the ancient, two-tiered institution of indentured servitude and permanent slavery. The Eved Ivri, or Hebrew indentured servant, served his master, a fellow Israelite, for six years, usually to work off debt or penalties incurred by theft, and was freed in the seventh year. From the Bible to the latest medieval sources, the master was obligated to respectfully treat the Eved Ivri as his equal in nearly all things. The Eved C’naani, (literally “Canaanite slave”), was a non-Jewish slave owned by a Jewish master. Though technically, one’s master could treat him as he saw fit, the great scholar, Maimonides, already ruled in the 12th century that, “the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom” was to treat one’s slaves with the utmost respect, kindness, and compassion. Though we utterly reject the practice of all types of slavery and servitude as morally repugnant, our ancestors sought to balance servitude as a common institution of their world with the Torah’s values of promoting freedom and human dignity. The long arc of Jewish law bends towards justice and dignified treatment for laborers, whether indentured, enslaved, or freed. This is based upon the biblical principles of being created in God’s image, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, God’s passionate concern for the powerless and the poor, and k’vod ha-briyot, treating all human beings with respect.
The long arc of Jewish law also bends towards giving those who sin the opportunity to do teshuvah, to repent, by making moral, verbal, and financial restitution to those they have harmed. Even capital punishment, a normative but rarely exercised punitive measure in Jewish law, provides for the individual to repent prior to being put to death by a court. All of these Jewish values and principles shine a harsh and disturbing light on the American penal justice system as it currently functions. Theoretically, the American prison system is founded upon an amalgam of two philosophical perspectives: a) prison is a form of retribution for criminal behavior: “you do the crime, you do the time;” b) prison is an opportunity for the criminal to be rehabilitated after being removed from society for the sake of its safety. With rare exceptions, the American prison system emphasizes the former principle far more than the latter. This is increasingly the case as state and county legislatures drastically reduce budgets for prison rehabilitation services (mental health, GED, job training and college credit courses etc). It is exacerbated by the often cynical “tough on crime” stances adopted by politicians that exploit the public’s legitimate fears about safety and that demonize criminals as less than human. Finally, studies have amply proven that our penal system, together with other institutions, perpetuates destructive race and class discrimination through its disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color.
Judaism strongly advocates for law abidance and for the rights of crime victims; these are inherent aspects of its insistence upon justice, safety, and civilized living. However, Judaism also rejects the contemptible idea that someone convicted and incarcerated for a crime is to be treated like a sweat shop slave, shackled to meaningless work for slave wages that do not afford the prisoner rehabilitative training or decent remuneration that can be used productively upon release from prison. Further, Jewish law requires that we lift the poor out of their poverty by giving them the dignified means to earn money self- sufficiently through job training, work, and business loans. (See Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah, of which this is the highest level.) Contemporary studies, in fact, confirm that when prison systems give their overwhelmingly poor and disadvantaged inmates opportunities for education and job training, as well as for earning and saving real salaries, their rates of recidivism upon release from prison plummet.
I do not oppose the penal system as a form of reasonable retributive justice, correction, deterrence and rehabilitation. Nor am I convinced that Judaism would advocate for abolition of the prison system. Nonetheless, an authentic Jewish values approach would condemn the abysmal conditions of brutality and neglect that currently exist in far too many American prisons and prison employment services. A true Jewish approach to the American penal system would demand radical reform which emphasizes quality rehabilitation for as many inmates as possible. It would demand that we treat criminals as real human beings whose crimes do not automatically condemn them to a living death behind bars that only hardens them even more, in anticipation of their return to society.
Sources for this article include:
Shmuely Yanklowitz, “Prison Reform: A Torah Perspective On The American Crisis.” See utzedek.org.
Chandra Bozelko, “Giving Working Prisoners Dignity—And Decent Wages.” See nationalreview.com.
Articles on employer-employee relations and contracts in Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, eds.The Observant Life, (New York, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2012.)
Eliyahu Touger, trans. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Slaves,” chapter 9:8. See chabad.org.
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Question: Is cremation and burial in a mausoleum okay in Judaism?
It is not my place to speak in behalf of Reform Judaism as a Conservative rabbi. I look forward to what my Reform colleague who is our panelist for this question will write. However, I want to present a Conservative Jewish perspective on this question using some brief quotes from my colleague, Rabbi Carl Astor.
Some introductory thoughts first. Burial of a person’s body is an explicit requirement of Jewish law and tradition. This is because, as the book of Genesis asserts, we are dust and we return to dust, a reminder that no one is greater than anyone else before God. We are all mortal and we must have the humility to accept this. Further, the Torah makes clear that kavor tik-b’renu, we must bury someone who has died as a show of respect for the body, even the body of an executed criminal, as is the case presented by the Torah. (See Deuteronomy 21:23.)
With these ideas in mind, Rabbi Astor writes the following, which is taken from his essay on the Jewish life cycle in the book, The Observant Life: The Wisdom Of Conservative Judaism For Contemporary Jews. (New York, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2012, pp. 239-304)
Judaism regards the human body as a sacred trust from God that none has the right to desecrate or destroy, and this has been the view of Judaism since ancient times. Therefore, cremation, considered the ultimate expression of disrespect to the dead, is absolutely forbidden in all instances…Normally, cremated remains are not buried in a Jewish cemetery. There are, however, certain exceptions to this rule…[Most] delicate is the situation that ensues when Jewish individuals leave specific instructions to their heirs that they wish to be cremated…The family of such individuals should be informed that they are not duty-bound to obey the wishes of their parents in this matter…Jewish tradition is completely clear that parents do not have the authority to instruct their children to violate Halakhah, (Jewish law). In this way, every effort should be made to discourage cremation. If the heirs feel, however, that they cannot go against the wishes of a… parent, such cremated remains may be buried in a Jewish cemetery…but in such a way that precludes any possibility of the Jewish community appearing to condone a decision that tradition considers abhorrent…”
Concerning mausoleum burial, Rabbi Astor further writes:
The above-ground disposition of the bodies of deceased individuals is wholly inconsonant with Jewish tradition as it is not a form of burial at all.
However, at least one detailed p’sak Halakhah, Jewish legal decision, concerning mausoleums that is lenient has been written and approved by the Conservative rabbinate. As Rabbi Astor points out in the article in another context, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement gives wide latitude to its rabbis in making all these decisions about funerary practices; each local rabbi is responsible for these decisions, consistent with his or her understanding of Jewish law and with each case of death, grief and burial that presents itself. It is always best to ask your congregational or community rabbi what his or her policies are concerning these matters.
As a Conservative congregational rabbi, I constantly work to balance respect for the ideals and obligations of Jewish law and tradition with sensitivity to the needs and pain of those faced with the loss of a loved one. In behalf of all my colleagues of all the denominations, I strongly suggest that you speak ahead of time with your rabbi about specific concerns you might have about cremation, above ground burial or any other Jewish funerary and mourning practice. It is always better not to assume that your rabbi knows what you need or that your rabbi can always accommodate your concerns. Part of our relationships with you involves understanding what you and your loved ones may want and need as well as helping you to understand better the wisdom of Jewish tradition as well as what we can or cannot do as rabbis.
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Question: To obtain closure from abuse and/or abandonment, can one sit shiva for a family member still living?
Abuse and abandonment violate every sacred trust known to Judaism. If you who asked this question are a victim of abuse or abandonment, please be assured that we who represent Jewish values and community are committed to supporting you unstintingly in your quest for healing, closure and safety. God is called Rahaman, the compassionate One, in our tradition. The task of every person in the community is to imitate God’s ways, especially those of us who represent God’s teachings as the community’s leaders. Our teacher, Maimonides, extended this obligation of imitating God’s compassion. He wrote that we are rahmanim bnei rahmanim: compassionate people descended from compassionate people. Our compassion is in our “spiritual DNA”, as it were. It certainly extends to our family members as much as, if not more than, to anyone else in the world. Further, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means minimally that we must do no harm to a fellow human being. How much more are we commanded to truly love the people closest to us in kinship, even if our relationships with them can never be perfect.
The Talmud and later codes of Jewish law are clear that children are obligated to honor and show reverence for their parents, God’s co-creators. Indeed, there are sources in Jewish tradition that go as far as counseling children to stoically honor parents who treat them poorly. However, these sources mostly record individual opinions which are balanced by other statements that mandate kind, respectful, life affirming treatment between family members. These statements are codified as normative law, and they represent the best spirit of Jewish tradition.
All legal formalities about honoring family members notwithstanding, you now must thoroughly sever ties with a family member who has hurt you terribly. You have a right and a responsibility to preserve your own life, physically and emotionally, and perhaps also the lives of other family members who have been damaged by this person. Such a drastic but necessary example of pikuach nefesh (saving life) is never done lightly. I agree with you that expressing this quest for closure in an authentically Jewish ritual manner is critical to your well- being as a person and as a Jew. You have every right to rely upon God’s people and Torah for validation of your trauma and your desire to heal by moving on in your life. Avelut, practicing the rituals of mourning -particularly through sitting shiva – is not the best way to achieve this, as I will explain below. However, there are other very Jewish ways to do this that I will suggest to you as well.
Shivah is an obligation incumbent upon a person whose closest kin -parent, spouse, child, sibling – has died. It is an important mitzvah (religious obligation) for two reasons. It creates a communal and religious context in which the person experiencing the loss can grieve, especially if he or she had an unresolved, complicated relationship with the deceased. Shivah also honors the person who died, through its communal rituals of remembrance and grief. Implicit in the observance of shivah is recognizing the finality of death. There is truly nothing that the mourner can do to bring back that person, whether to have more time with that loved one or to resolve painful conflicts that were never dealt with. Shivah helps the community and the mourner to face the hard facts that our loved one is never coming back and that death is what awaits all of us.
You deserved much better from the family member with whom you’re severing ties. I infer from your question that, understandably, you wish to sit shivah to grieve the death of your relationship and the living death that family member caused you to experience. Part of your healing involves affirming that, (for lack of a better phrase), this person is “dead to you” and can no longer hurt you. However, he or she is actually still very much alive, in the physical sense. Your sitting shivah sends a message to others that the past is now truly the past, and that you are moving on, as if ther person has really died. Yet the context of this message is problematic. Can your abuser now expect the resigned forgiveness or forgetfulness of others, without having repented or even attempted to repent for horrible behavior? Also, though it is unlikely, (and for good reason), it is always possible that you will forgive the one who abused you or the one who abandoned you, who then asks to reenter your life. If this might also be part of your healing in the future, sitting shivah beforehand might not be helpful.
Another potential issue with your sitting shivah in this circumstance is related to what I discussed above. Shivah is about mourning and honoring a person who died. It is not for me to judge how you are feeling as you seek closure for your trauma. You may well be experiencing this severance as one component of profound loss, even as you liberate yourself psychologically from your abuser. However, you would certainly not seek to honor this family member. Thus, why use shivah with its distinctive ritual symbolism to achieve the closure that I assume you seek?
I suggest a different approach to marking this severing of ties through a symbolic ritual. The Talmud (Tractate Moed Katan, ch. 3) records an extensive discussion about communally sanctioned excommunication. (Interestingly, an ex-communicant shares many overt features with a mourner.) It quotes a member of one rabbi’s household declaring that a person who strikes his adult child should be excommunicated. Her reason was that doing this misleads that child by causing him or her to strike back at the parent, thus promoting violence and violating the imperative to honor parents. (The Talmud expresses this as putting a stumbling block before the blind.) Maimonides later codified this Talmudic opinion in a list of actions for which a person incurs excommunication. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, 6:14). We must certainly broaden this category of banned behavior to include abusing anyone of any age, whether or not the victim strikes back at the abuser. That is certainly in keeping with the spirit of this law, if not its letter.
We modern progressives are rightly horrified by the idea that I could put a ban on someone else, even for minor infractions of communal rules. Such practices, which probably were abused at times for vengeful purposes, fell into disuse as Jewish communities entered modernity; they likely helped ancient Jewish communities to enforce standards of conduct and to express a kind of cathartic outrage at bad behavior. I am definitely not advocating the revival of court sanctioned excommunications. However, the idea of “excommunicating an abuser” strikes me as a potent – and more on-point- Jewish metaphor for declaring that one has broken ties with an abusive family member. Actual bans of excommunication weren’t necessarily permanent (the one banned could be rehabilitated by a communal court). However, a symbolic ritual of niddui or herem (terms for two forms of excommunication) can express very clearly what I think you are trying to say: “With the support of the community, I declare this person officially banned from my life. The community in the past could cast an offender from its midst through excommunication. Here in the present, I am casting this egregious offender from my midst, and I am doing it knowing that the community will help me to prevent the offender from returning.”
We can think of a ceremony of niddui/herem – whose details still need to be determined - as a kind of symbolic retributive justice. I suggest that you could follow it with attendance at mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. Contemporary uses of mikveh as a healing or rebirthing ritual have gone well beyond its traditional ritual purposes, and for good reason. A mikveh purifies its user from ritual pollution, particularly pollution which is the result of contact with death. I emerge from the mikveh, as it were, “born again” out of the waters of an amniotic sac. This is why many contemporary rabbis will take abuse and trauma victims to mikveh. Immersion declares that you can transcend the living death you experienced in the past, so that you can truly live again. You have suffered so much. You deserve no less than full healing.
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Question: Is it OK to sing along with traditional black gospel music? I was raised in the south and in many ways raised by black women (think the movie The Help). While I am an observant Jew, I find the music happy, hopeful and it gives me peace when I am depressed.
One of the ways that the Jewish people responds to life’s challenges and tragedies is through learning Torah, which gives us life. I am posting my response to the above question on the same day that the world learned of the murders of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gil-ad Shaar, the three Israeli boys kidnapped by terrorists over two weeks ago. I dedicate my small contribution of Torah below to them and their families. May their memories be a blessing.
I agree with you that a great deal of gospel music is happy and hopeful. This is not surprising, given its historic roots in the African American experience. Gospel has always been an expression of deep faith and of deep spiritual resistance to slavery, racism and hardship. I do not listen to a lot of gospel, but when I do, I too am inspired by its powerful religious themes, its joyousness, and its energetic celebration of the spiritual life. It is one of God’s musical gifts to the world, and, as you wrote, it clearly gives you peace when you feel depressed.
However, is it permissible according to Jewish law to sing along with gospel music, since it is Christian religious music used in church services?
First, a very few words about Christianity, from a Conservative Jewish legal perspective. Traditionally, Jewish law has forbidden us from having anything to do with the Christian religion, even from entering a church when religious services are not being held. This is because a major position within Jewish law defined Christian beliefs in the trinity and Jesus’ divinity, as well as Christian iconography depicting Jesus as God or one aspect of God, as avodah zarah, idolatry. However, another very important Jewish legal position holds that Christians are not idolaters, but gedurim b’darkhei ha-datot, nations bound by “the ways of religion.” Religions such as Christianity demonstrate some belief in one supreme God and they possess a moral code, even if their practices are different from ours and do not completely conform to Jewish ideas about monotheism. Thus, Christians may practice their religion as their form of monotheism, even though we Jews are expressly forbidden from practicing any form of their religion.
My colleague, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, explains that, based upon this latter approach, in our day, especially when we live in an open society amicably with our Christian neighbors, we may and should be able to visit their churches and church services. To be clear, we are absolutely forbidden from attending Christian worship in order to join in prayer, but we may certainly attend it for social purposes, as good neighbors and respectful visitors who seek to maintain good relations with them. (See his article, “Interfaith Relations,” in Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, eds. The Observant Life, pp. 727-750.)
May we sing Christian religious music? In church, during a Christian worship service, we may not, for that is worship in substance and appearance. I am going to assume that you are singing gospel music at home or in your car, which is certainly not a form of organized or even private worship. Further, as a religious Jew, you would have no intention of singing gospel for religious purposes. Therefore, I would support your singing along with your favorite Gospel tunes, especially if they lift you up in times of sorrow and doubt.
One important caveat, though: using the name of Jesus descriptively, for instance in an academic setting, should not be problematic for Jews, even though it is a Greek translation of the Hebrew, Yeshua, “salvation.” In that context, you would be using it for purely non-religious purposes. However, it is far more problematic for Jews to say Jesus’ name in any context where it is expressly being used to praise him as the Christians’ savior. This is especially the case when his name is used in combination with theological terms such as Christ or Redeemer. A technical distinction might be made between invoking Jesus’ name during a church service and shouting it in your den as you’re listening to a great gospel choir. Nonetheless, something about reciting his name in a song of praise, even privately and with no actual religious intent on your part, does not sit well with me. The letter of Jewish law might permit it, and I say “might” with great qualification, not having researched this matter sufficiently. The spirit of Jewish law would not permit it.
Thus, while you could sing gospel to lift up your spirit, avoid those songs that invoke the name of Jesus and of Jesus as savior. Choose those gospel songs that praise and thank God in general, without any reference to Jesus. Further, while I fully appreciate your emotional attachment to gospel, you may want to also give Hasidic niggunim and klezmer music a try, if you haven’t already.
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Question: After an adult conversion, is there any halakhah, etiquette or rule regarding a celebration for the convert?
Conversion to Judaism is one of the greatest, and potentially most daunting, journeys that a Jew can take in his or her life. If you (or someone you love) are converting to Judaism, you should be able to celebrate joining the Jewish people in the context of a welcoming Jewish community to the extent that you feel comfortable doing so. I can think of no traditional halakhah or minhag (Jewish law or custom) other than the formal rituals of conversion that officially prescribes how or if such a celebration is to take place. As I understand it, contemporary custom provides at least three options for celebrating with a person who has converted:
A joyous naming ceremony right after the mikveh (ritual bath) in the presence of invited family, friends, and honored members of the Jewish and general communities.
The same private naming ceremony, but at the synagogue, which could include a celebratory meal.
Honoring that person publicly with his or her first aliyah (Torah blessings) or other public ritual role, then sponsoring the Kiddush in his or her honor.
All of these options can help a new member of the Jewish community celebrate and feel welcomed.
I should mention one caveat concerning the public celebration of someone’s conversion. Reminding someone of the fact that he or she is descended from converts to Judaism is prohibited by the Talmud as an example of onaat devarim, oppressing someone verbally. (See the Mishnah, Tractate Bava Metzia, 4:10.) Interestingly, Tosafot, (the Franco-German schools of rabbinic scholarship that flourished in the 12th -14th centuries), comment that one should not even remind a person of his ancestors’ conversionary status; how much more are we prohibited from bringing up that person’s own background of conversion to Judaism. This is also emphasized in the Gemara, the running commentary on the Mishnah which, together with it, makes up the Talmud. (See the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, 58b.) It prohibits us from turning away a convert who wants to study Torah because his or her former life was spent not following the Torah. Underlying all of these details of the prohibition is the idea that we may not demean or marginalize a person by insinuating, particularly with malicious intent, that he or she isn’t really Jewish because he or she wasn’t born Jewish.
The Talmud mentions that the Torah verse from which this prohibition is derived (Leviticus 25:17) reminds us that we should fear God, in order to deter a person who might deceptively claim that a comment about someone’s conversionary status was done with only good intent. God knows our true intent, and God will call us to account for it. I would add that, in the spirit of this law, we should be exceedingly careful not to embarrass a convert to Judaism by mentioning his or her background, even if our intent in doing so is completely sincere. Thus, before mentioning someone’s conversion publicly, we must insure that he or she is comfortable having this announcement made. My general policy when honoring a new Jew with a first time public ritual role is to wish him or her well upon performing that ritual, and to leave out mention of the conversion, unless that person wishes otherwise. Also, I do not talk about a person’s conversion to Judaism with others, regardless of my intent, unless I know that the person would be OK with this. This avoids all potential for embarrassment and violation of privacy. It also reinforces the fact that a “convert to Judaism” is not a convert, but a Jew, no less or more than any other Jew.
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