A Note on Teshuva and Yom Kippur

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This past weekend, leaders from the dozens of organizations which make up the Decriminalizing Communities Coalition met together for a retreat. We discussed strategy, messaging, and next steps for our campaign to dismantle a system which criminalizes, dehumanizes, and punishes communities across this country. This campaign, like so much of our work, is about taking something immoral – unjust – and replacing it with something better. Something just.

The irony of calling this very thing the criminal “justice” system is not lost on us! Nor was the significance of doing this retreat during the Days of Awe – the days between the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

Atonement is different from penitence. As is the case in so many Jewish traditions, we are called to fix what has been broken rather than face punishment for our part in breaking it. This principle lives with us in another one of our traditions of justice: teshuva.

Teshuva is the practice of restorative justice. Rather than punishing someone who has wronged, teshuva tells us to allow a person to ask forgiveness, and demands we offer our acceptance. The goal here is not punitive. It is restorative. Repairing the relationship between the one who did wrong and the one wronged also repairs the tear in the fabric of the community that was the theft or the vandalism or the assault.

In many ways, JCA’s mission is a constant act of Teshuva. The oppressions and injustices we see in the world are our responsibilities to bear. And teshuva teaches us we have an obligation to make these right. When one of us is poor, we are all to blame. When racism, sexism, homophobia, or religious bigotry persist in society, it is our job to eliminate them.

And our work – our commitment to tikkun olam and the construction of a better future – is how we atone.

What might a criminal justice system that is interested in repairing rather than punishing look like? What would a community without prisons, jails, or internment camps auger for the future?

Our traditions tell us that a better world is possible. Our acts of teshuva are part of the way we get there.

Gemar chatimah tovah,

The JCA Staff.

Isaiah Breen

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