For JCA Criminal Justice Reform Summit, December 4, 2016
Rabbi Debra Rappaport
People – not criminals – people, go to prison for crimes they may have committed. People with families, communities, pasts and futures. Human beings who have a divine right to dignity. The Jewish tradition insists not only that everyone is created in the image of God, with a spark of the divine within, but also that everyone can do teshuvah.
The Jewish concept of teshuvah, is typically translated into English as “repentance”, and it’s what we work most intentionally on during the season of the High Holy Days. But this concept of teshuvah is much more profound and radical than “repentance” can capture. Its root, shuv, means turn – or return. It points us back to the core belief that all humans are essentially good. “Elohai neshamah sh’natata bi – tehora hi” we say every morning: “God, the soul you gave me is pure!” Teshuvah affirms that every single one of us always has the potential to come back to our best selves. No matter how wicked, no matter how long.
Medieval sage Rambam “In these days, when the Temple no longer stands and we have no altar of atonement, all we have is teshuvah. Teshuvah atones for all sins. Even if someone was wicked all her days and repented towards the end of her life, we do not remind her of any of her wickedness, as it says, ‘The wicked will not fail on account of her wickedness, on the day that she repents of her wickedness.’ (Ezekiel 33:12)” RaMBaM Hilchot Teshuvah 1:3
This doesn’t mean it’s easy – it’s really quite difficult and complicated. It’s aspirational. The RaMbaM developed, based on all the teachings that preceded him, a whole treatise called Hilchot Teshuvah, the Laws of Teshuvah – acknowledging both the centrality and the complexity of teshuvah. Genuine teshuvah requires several steps, divided and explained differently by different teachers. These are the essentials, each of which is worthy of study:
1. Acknowledge the harm done
3. Make reparations
4. Resolve to not do that action again in a similar situation
This is hard – for the transgressor and for the survivor. What is the motivation?
Teshuvah is said to be one of the six things that preceded the creation of the world. It is so fundamental a principle that it is built into our DNA, so to speak.
“Teshuvah is the aspiration for the true original freedom, which is the divine freedom, wherein there is no enslavement of any kind.” Ha-Rav Abraham Isaac Kook is making the case that teshuvah is essential to real freedom, beyond release from incarceration. Louis Newman (whose book I highly recommend) sums it up this way: “The goal of the penitent is to find true freedom – freedom from the mistakes of the past and from the compulsion to repeat them, freedom from shame, freedom from the shackles of self-deception, self-aggrandizement, and self-denigration. Freedom to live a life of wholeness and integrity, freedom to become the people we were created to be.”
How to get from where we are today to genuine opportunities for teshuvah is outside the scope of my address. This process is both internal and external. It can’t really be imposed. It asks both the wrong-doer and the wronged to engage in healing work that goes far beyond job training. My hope in assembling these thoughts is that we set our aspirations to our true human (God-given) potential, and that as we make progress in criminal justice reform… to remember that every person enters this world with a spark of good; and every person has a right to return to that spark of good. The process of teshuvah is what can heal a person’s soul.
What’s at stake is the very humanity of people who have served a prison term – whether rightly or wrongly charged and convicted. What’s at stake is all of our humanity as a mutually-interdependent society.