Wake up! (On T’shuvah/Repentance & Criminal Justice Reform)

What does it mean to wake up? Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance (Chapter 3) writes that the function of the shofar is to wake a person up. “Those who forget the truth in the emptiness of the passing time…” should heed the blast of the ram’s horn and stir from their slumber. Nowadays, it is common in activist quarters to speak of people who have recognized certain systemic injustices as being “woke.” Maimonides and the activists are speaking to the same point. There is a crying need to step out of the familiar and often lazy thinking about our own and society’s actions. We are called to take an unvarnished look at our society, and ourselves.

I want to suggest that the first place we should be looking is the criminal justice system. Can we think differently about our carceral system (the justice system in the way that it impacts those who are themselves incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and their families and communities)?

When the State of Israel was young, questions about what a justice system should be like were in the air. This is how the Rishon le-Tziyon, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel responded in 1952.

From this we derive that the punishment of imprisonment is distant from and opposed to the laws and punishments of the Torah of Israel. This is also logical since not only does this punishment not reform the criminal, rather it reduces him to very low moral level, since he is constantly found in the company of criminals similar to himself, and he spends time in idle conversation with them—sometimes even ugly and contemptible conversation. This company habituates him to a life of idleness which are a curse to him and others. This prison and the uniform of a prisoner, and the degraded and ugly living conditions in the prison, their tables and their beds, and all the more so when they are accompanied by hard labor, degrade the prisoner in his own eyes and in the eyes of his children and his wife and family. The moral degradation of a person in his own eyes removes his feelings of embarrassment and therefore he gives himself over to sin, from which he will never return. The opposite is the case, he will continue to sin in order to free himself from the worry for his support and the support of his children and wife all of his time in prison, when he is dependent upon those who provide him with food and water.

Rav Uziel makes three points. First, imprisonment is not a punishment that is grounded in Jewish law or tradition. In Jewish law, the only time a person is subjected to imprisonment is when they are awaiting judgement in very specific cases.* However, imprisonment as a punishment in and of itself is nonexistent.

Second, imprisonment does not make sense since it does not lead to reforming a criminal but rather puts criminals into the community of other criminals so that they do not reform, but actually become worse offenders.

Finally, the prison is physically and mentally degrading, thus leading a person to believing that the only option they have is a life of crime.

Before we immediately dismiss the idea of doing away with imprisonment as naive—“Sure the prison system is not perfect, but what is the alternative?”—let us sit with Rav Uziel’s critique for a minute. If prison does not really “work”—that is, if prison benefits neither prisoner nor society—why would we have it? Well, does it work? According to National Institute of Justice statistics, within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners are rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners are rearrested. If a company manufactured cars, two-thirds to three-quarters of which were defective, that company would soon go out of business. A recidivism rate this great points to the obvious conclusion that prisons are doing almost nothing to rehabilitate prisoners. At the same time, the fact that the released prisoners are re-offending points to the fact that the current system is not making the society any safer.

A recent study also claims that the societal costs of our carceral system are enormous. Some of the societal costs of incarceration include the wages people no longer earn while imprisoned — $70.5 billion — and the amount of lifetime earnings they will likely lose out on — $230 billion — after they get out because of employment restrictions and discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, the study says.

The formerly incarcerated also have a mortality rate that is 3.5 times higher than people who were not incarcerated, according to the study, and researchers estimated the cost of their shortened lives to be $62.6 billion. As for the communities where incarcerated people live, the researchers believe the biggest cost — $285.8 billion — is the criminogenic effect of prison, or the theory that prison reinforces criminal behaviors that carry over into a community.

Are we awake yet?

The United States imprisons more people than any other country on the planet. There are more than 2.3 million people in prison, according to this report by the Prison Policy Initiative. The carceral system disproportionally impacts the Black community. While African-Americans are 13% of the general population of the United State, they make up 40% of the prison population.

Are we awake now?

What can be done? The current system of imprisonment is broken seemingly beyond repair. It seems insane, though, to just shut it down, right? There are those—prison abolitionists—who suggest shutting down the system as a whole and investing the enormous resources into restorative justice and transformative justice efforts.

However, there are some immediate things that we can do as a society, short of complete and immediate abolition. Get rid of determinate sentencing. Get rid of mandatory minimums. We commission judges to try cases because they are supposed to be the arbiters of justice not the agents of vengeance for a community. Reintroduce earned parole. We should incentivize prisoners to study, to better themselves spiritually, and psychologically. While we still have prisons we should transform them into a way-station where a majority of the prisoners can go through and come out the other side as productive members of society.

We must make re-entry into society easier. We have to make it illegal to ask job applicants for their criminal history until a tentative job offer has been proffered, and then only relevant criminal history would be reason for not hiring. (If you embezzled funds, you can still drive a bus.) We have to make it illegal to ask for criminal background checks in rental applications, and for government housing. We should decriminalize nonviolent drug offenses and used the money saved for addiction prevention and drug rehabilitation programs.

“Awaken sleepers from your sleep, rouse yourselves from your slumber, investigate your deeds and repent…”

* When a person hits another person and the second person is badly injured. The court imprisons the first person to see whether the case is a capital case or not. Another type of imprisonment is actually an alternative capital punishment. On that see here.


Resources and actions:

Support Proposition 57: The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act in the November election

Support Proposition 62: Abolish the Death Penalty in California

Call your councilmember and tell them to support the Fair Chance Act

T’ruah’s Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration

Maya Schenwar, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better

Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Statement from the Jerusalem Community Relations Council

“While we agree with many of Isaiah’s sentiments, and we too think that the poor, and the orphaned should be protected, we cannot abide the extreme and unfair language that Isaiah employs to describe our beloved city. Calling the city a ‘harlot’ and ‘filled with murderers’!? Why is he singling out Jerusalem? Has Isaiah looked around at other cities? Jerusalem is doing pretty well. We live in a rough neighborhood. Moreover, the calumnies that he heaps on the Temple are just unacceptable. He has no right to claim that God would say: ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, …And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. … Trample My courts no more; … Incense is offensive to Me. … Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; …And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you.’

“And this is not all. After defaming our city and our Temple, he puts forward outlandish ideas of how to run our country. Is this a sustainable defense policy? ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.’ We have tried to cooperate with Isaiah on moderate and reasonable reforms. We too feel the pain of the marginalized, and the deficiencies of the sacrificial system. Yet, after the obviously malicious and slanderous language that Isaiah uses in his so-called platform, we can longer cooperate with him.

“Signed, the The Jerusalem Community Relations Council.”

On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.

Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on.

The question is asked: why is all this done? That is, why is there so much choreography, so much disruption? The answer is given: so that the children will see and ask questions. Immediately, the following story is told:

Abaye was sitting before Rabbah,

[Abaye] saw the tray taken up from before [Rabbah].

Said [Abbaye] to them: We have not yet eaten, and they have come [and] removed the tray from before us!

Said Rabbah to him: You have exempted us from reciting, ‘Why [is this night] different?’ [mah nishtanah]

(Bavli Pesahim 114b)

Part of the seder ritual itself is pointing out the differences between the Passover night meal and other meals. This ritualized noticing is known as the the mah nishtanah or “Why is this night different?” Abbaye’s actual noticing that the tray was taken up at a surprising moment made the ritual recitation redundant.

This story comes to illustrate the point that the intricate and disruptive choreography is in order “that the children take notice and ask.” However, the “child” who notices is Abbaye, one of the foremost sages of the Talmudic academies.

The story raises another point. If the point of the evening is recounting the Exodus, why is it necessary to travel this long and winding road to the story of the liberation? Why does the seder not start with “We were slaves in Egypt…” and move on from there?

The digressions and diversions of the seder are, I would suggest, the point. At each stop of the ritual order we engage in some very specific activity which stops the flow of the conversation and forces us to focus on something else. The point of the ritual is not only, in the end, the largest themes—liberation, God, covenant. The point is engaging with others in community. The ritual of the seder happens around a table and not in a synagogue. Everybody is invited (ritually, too, all four children are present—the wise child and the wicked child, the simple child and the one who does not even know how to ask). It is in the small moments of social interaction, of give and take between people around the table, in which liberation happens. The point is not recounting the Exodus with great fanfare. The point is talking with others about it. Disagreeing, studying, learning.

This privileging of the smaller though perhaps more important moments comes to mind at this moment in our national history. We are engaged in a raucous presidential campaign. The differences between Democrats and Republicans are, as they say Yuge! However, at times, or to believe the pundits and my Facebook feed, the difference between Sanders and Clinton is also huge. While the campaign is truly important, and electing a Democrat president is important for future of our democracy, I want to suggest that right now, the cacophony of the internecine fighting is drowning out other work which is equally important.

150529_FightFor15-1250x650This past week New York State and California both passed minimum wage bills which will lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty. Last Thursday, in one of the largest national days of action, we celebrated that victory. However, we also marked the fact that there is more work to do. Activists from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, Service Employees International Union, the Black Jewish Justice Alliance and tens of workers at six o’clock in the morning in a McDonalds demanding immediate access to a union and $15 an hour. (The current state legislation would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.) Thousands of people later marched through the streets of Los Angeles and other cities demanding that $15 an hour be the minimum wage nationally. The fact that we won in Los Angeles, and got legislation in California was not because of the electoral process but as a result of a movement from the streets up. This movement started with fast food workers walking off their jobs, not with elected officials.

There is plenty of other work in various stages of process. Reforming the criminal justice system. Banning youth solitary confinement. Reforming hiring practices so that formerly incarcerated people can get jobs and rejoin the community. Holding police accountable when they break the law. Abolishing the death penalty. Addressing the moral challenges of having tens of thousands of homeless people living on the streets in one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Strengthening voting rights. Addressing gun control. Addressing racism and demanding that Black Lives Matter. Stopping Islamophobia and antisemitism.

These issues can get lost in the clang and clash of presidential debates and rallies. However, in this moment, it is of the utmost importance that we also keep our focus on the smaller moments, the moments in which we engage each other, debate, disagree, join forces and bring the necessary democratic pressure of the people to create a more perfect union.

Show me what democracy looks like!

This is what democracy looks like!


Getting involved

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice


Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches.

Well, we know that the experiment in Egypt didn’t turn out so well. We know that a new Pharaoh arose who was driven by his own paranoia and hatred to enslave the Israelites, to kill every male newborn. And we know that God took Israel out of Egypt. And we know that the Israelites had kept the promise of their ancestors. As they crossed the Red Sea they were able to point and say: “This is my God and I will praise him.”

Why then, if the Children of Israel were at such a lofty spiritual place that they were able to literally point at God and say “this is my God!”—why did it take another two months of wandering in the desert before they were able to hear the revelation at Sinai? Exodus 19, the chapter that introduces the revelation, begins: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.” Why did they have to wait so long? The answer is that though they had left Egypt, they still had to get the culture of the Pharaoh out of them. They had to rid themselves of the culture of oppression, of hierarchy, of the concentration of wealth in the hands of one person, of the ideology that a person could be like a god. It was only when they had gotten Egypt out of them that they were able to hear, to really hear the word of God: “I am God, your God, who has taken you out of land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

This is God’s calling card. “I am God who does not tolerate oppression.” This is what God is. Immediately followed by the prohibition against idolatry, false gods—do not mistake that which is not a god for God. All oppression—racism, sexism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia—is based on the notion that there is a hierarchy of beings in the world and that WE are on the top, that WE are in the position of God. This is exactly what the revelation at Sinai came to undermine, to oppose, to destroy—but in order to hear that vision of what God is, and what God is in the world, and how to create a world in the image of God—first we need to rid ourselves of the culture of Pharaoh.

This is not easy. Removing the culture of hierarchy, of thinking ourselves better than others, more deserving than others, and therefore that others are less than full human beings created in the image of God, is hard work.

So when I stand here in front of you, I am haunted by the following paragraph from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham jail. Responding to a call from clergy to be more moderate in his demands he wrote:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is the hard work of getting rid of the culture of Pharaoh. Recognizing that justice is more important than “order.” That the inconvenience of the struggle for freedom and justice is more important than the “convenience” of oppression.

And so we get back to the daily affirmation of God’s oneness. Hear O Israel, God is God, God is one. If there is only one God, and there is, then God is God of everyone, no matter what name we know God by.

And so this is our charge and our prayer. In the fierce urgency of now we are commanded to reach out to each other, to stand strongly together, and to say: “We do not build the world in the image of God by denigrating other peoples, other religions. The beautiful mosaic of God’s people cannot be contained within the parameters of one liturgical tradition, of one set of religious symbols. God who is beyond all cannot be grasped by one Scripture, one dogma, one law. God is refracted in all the facets of belief which are expressed by all the religious traditions.”

Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is One.

When the Police need to be Policed (on a Civilian Oversight Commission)

We, as a nation, are in the midst of a full blown crisis. While the carnivalesque debaucheries of the Trump run at the White House have taken much of the air out of the room, exposing a dangerous level of xenophobic hatred and racist violence in segments of the American electorate, there is another crisis which is not getting the attention it deserves.

This crisis is being acted out with the slow motion intensity of a car crash in Chicago, but also in Baltimore, in Texas, in Minneapolis, and here in Los Angeles. Though the details of the crisis change slightly from place to place, the bottom line is the same: as a result of a lack of transparency, a history of abuse, law enforcement agencies have lost credibility, and therefore a lack of legitimacy among the people and communities that they are supposed to be serving. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Seventh Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.חנוכיה

The Hanukah lights are about the boundary—between inside and outside, between public and private, between the market and the home. Also between the past and the present, and between ourselves and others.

The Torah portion that we read today in synagogue recounts the Joseph story. It is called miketz, at the end. The portion begins at the end of Joseph’s seven years of imprisonment on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. Joseph is called to Pharaoh from his cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he does successfully. He is rewarded with the highest position in the kingdom—second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given authority over all the lands and resources of the kingdom, authority to collect food and prepare Egypt for the famine to come. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fifth Night of Hanukah

I was asked to speak tonight at an interfaith gathering which was a memorial for the fourteen people who were killed in the San Bernardino attack, and a chance to come together as a broad and diverse community to reject Islamophobia. IMG_1564This is what I said:

One aspect of the traditional Jewish way of mourning is to recite the so-called Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. The Kaddish, however, is not actually a prayer for the dead. It is a prayer that glorifies God.

yitgadal ve-yitkadash shmay rabbah. May the name of God be glorified and sanctified. Our tradition tells us that when we say the kaddish, God mourns saying: “They are praising Me, and yet look at my ravaged world.” (Bavli Berachot 3a) God’s tears mingle with our tears. We mourn together. Tonight we mourn the fourteen beautiful souls who were killed in San Bernardino in a horrific act of terrorism. An act that blasphemed the name of God, as all acts of murder do. Unfortunately, we are coming together more and more often to mourn the consequences of terrorist mass killings in the United States. In Charleston, in Colorado, and now in San Bernardino. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fourth Night of Hanukah

IMG_1553Tonight we light the fourth Hanukah light.

One of the things that the Sages of the Talmud do best is designate times for rituals. Often according to the cycle of the sun—first light on the horizon, sparkling of the sun, sunrise, midway through the sun’s cycle, twilight, sunset. These time measurements (for prayer, for starting the Sabbath, for beginning and ending fast days and holidays) are relatively objective. It is surprising then that we find the following time designation for the Hanukah candles:

The obligation [of lighting the Hanukah candles] is from the setting of the sun until everyone has left the market. (Bavli Shabbat 21b)

Why do the Hanukah candles have to be burning until the marketplace is empty, rather than, say, two hours into the night, or some other “objective” marker?

There are two blessings for the Hanukah candles. One blessing is upon lighting the candles, and the other is for seeing them (and being reminded of the miracles God has done). When a person lights the candles, she makes both blessings since she has both lit and seen them. However, if a person is just passing by, he may make the second blessing, for seeing the candles without having lit them. This is where the marketplace comes in.

Hanukah lights are lit on the boundary of private and public with the intention that they are seen both inside the house and in the market. The purpose is to shine light on the marketplace. Flame, the symbol of the Divine, is sorely needed in the marketplace. The spiritual need for justice and righteousness is most acute in the market, where the illusion that “this is all the work of my own strength, my own hands,” is most rampant. The dazzling idol of wealth can blind one to the demands of justice, to the righteous needs of workers, to our covenantal obligation to the earth. The flame of the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, shines a light into the marketplace, binding us to the demands of justice. “Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Third Night of Hanukah

IMG_1548Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.

We place the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, on the boundary between inside and outside, at the place where private meets public. The flames, except in times of great danger, must be seen from the public spaces. The public space is not nobody’s space—it is everybody’s space. It is the place in which democracy happens, in which people gather together to bring about change. It is the place in which we must play out our responsibility to everybody. Placing our hanukiyah in the window, or outside next to the door, is making the statement that the boundaries between my house and the world are permeable. I do not retreat to my house so as to shut out the injustice and pain of the world. I retreat to my house to gather my strength with my family and friends so that I can go out and make a change in the world—so that we can stand together in the public spaces, the streets, the halls of political power, and demand accountability, and articulate a vision for a more just city, and country, and world.

The public space is also, for some, a cold and threatening space. It is the only place that some folks have to lay their weary bodies down to sleep. When I place my hanukiyah on the permeable boundary between my house and the world, I also embrace those people who only have the public place, a dangerous and cold space—where our prayers are not enough, and nothing less than radical change will suffice.

A Kavanah [intention] for the Second Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the second Hanukah light.

The original Hanukah story is told primarily in the first Book of Maccabees (Sefer HaMakabim), which was written in near proximity to the second century BCE events which are recounted therein. Some scholars think that the original author was a witness to the events. I Maccabees, the book, tells the story of the victorious military revolt of a band of faithful Judean priests over the forces of the Hellenizers (called “sons of Belial”) and the army of the empire. The climactic scene is the capturing, purification, and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight day holiday of rededication (from whence the name Hanukah/dedication comes) was originally a thanksgiving celebration for the miraculous military victory of the Hasmoneans over their internal and external enemies.

Hanukah, one of the two post-biblical holidays in the Jewish calendar, was recorded in the Scroll of Days on Which it is Forbidden to Fast. When incorporated in the Talmudic discussion (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b), the explanation for the holiday is radically changed.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Temple, and there was not enough oil to light [the candelabrum]. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they searched but found only one cruze of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest which had not been defiled. There was only enough oil to light for one night. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days.

From the point of view of the Hasmoneans, the rabbis seemed to have buried the lede! The military victory of the few over the many is overlooked in favor of the miracle of the oil. This was no simple oversight. The rabbis time and again, choose the path of nonviolent spiritual struggle over the bloody path of military victory. (The miraculous appearance of fire, is also a well-known sign of the presence of God.)

The rabbinic tradition is not necessarily a pacifist tradition—the Bible itself is filled with war and violent mayhem—however, the rabbis in their ultimate homeland, the house of study, labored to create a world of spiritual struggle rather than military clashes. Rabbinic heroes, such as Rabbi Akiva, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the decrees of the Roman empire—and paid the ultimate price for it. As we light the candles tonight we embrace the legacy of spiritual struggle, the nonviolent path of righteousness and justice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)