Consider and Converse: A Guide to Kavod ha-briyot / Honoring God’s Creation
Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of kavod ha-briyot — Honoring God’s Creation. Sh’ma Now uses this frame to explore what Jewish wisdom teaches us regarding the treatment of prisoners, the American system of incarceration, and how — as Jews — we might address prison reform.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at https://forward.com/shma-now/.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Rabbi Michael Lezak shares some poignant stories about his teaching in prisons. He has spent several years working with prisoners who are learning the skills and compassion to care for other inmates in the final weeks of life. He notices that “this holy hospice work not only honors the dying in their final days but has also restored a sense of honor and purpose to the men doing the work. These rituals around death have ushered in so much life.” He shares these stories as a way to understand the complicated lives of prison inmates—and how all of us are to be treated as God’s creation. Michael continues: “As I look around the room in this prison hospice, I don’t see inmates or criminals. I see able-bodied angels spoon-feeding and giving sponge baths to dying inmates. I can’t help but think that this is one of many desperately needed models for how we might honor God’s creation.” What does Jewish wisdom teach us about honoring all of creation? What are the intricacies of that honoring? Is there a time to not honor one of God’s creation — and for what sorts of reasons?
- Alex Sherman writes about bail reform. He explains the inconsistencies and injustice of current the bail system. After arrest, the “courts have increasingly relied on cash bail to determine whether a person should be released from jail before trial. Between 1990 and 2009, the share of people required to post money bail grew from 37 percent to 61 percent, according to the ACLU and the nonprofit Color of Change. …After a person is arrested, a judge will set a bail amount based on the criminal charge, giving that person the option of enjoying the right to liberty before trial. But, in many states, these amounts are set so high that most people cannot afford to pay them, leaving them with no good option at all. They can either purchase a commercial bail bond for a fee or languish in jail until trial.” Alex goes on to write that even a short, pretrial detention can cause lasting and severe harm to an individual, including loss of income and inordinate family and emotional stress. “It’s a harrowing fact that suicide is the leading cause of death in jails, and it’s most often committed by people who have been arrested for nonviolent offenses, who have not been tried and convicted, and who were in jail for less than a week.” Who is most hurt by the current bail system and what are the obstacles to bail reform? How is the bail system an indication of the disparity between various segments of American society? How do you understand the underlying issues of the bail system as they relate to larger issues of race in America?
- Margo Schlanger suggests three reasons Jews should be involved with prison reform. First, Jews believe that teshuvah is possible, so we should work on behalf of prisoners to have opportunities in prison and beyond to rehabilitate themselves and find opportunities for change. Second, fundamental to Judaism “is the principle of k’vod ha-bri’ot (honoring God’s creatures) and the notion that all humankind is created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). Both are powerful acknowledgements of equality and calls to struggle against dehumanizing conditions such as solitary confinement, enforced idleness, untreated illness, and abusive force.” And third, the Talmud teaches we mustn’t take “restitution even from a repentant thief because that would encumber his or her teshuvah. Likewise, a basic insight of modern reentry reform is that we need to frame our criminal justice institutions to facilitate, not obstruct, righteous living.” Given that Jewish wisdom offers such clear teachings about teshuvah, why have Jewish communities and institutions been so slow at embracing prison reform? Why does immigration reform resonate more closely with the passions of Jews? How might you lay a framework for thinking about issues around incarceration — overcrowding of prisons, biases in courts, recidivism, etc?
Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
One writerwrote anonymously about how her father was arrested a few times when she was a teenager. She understood that his criminal behavior was, at least in part, based on his desire to protect his family from need. A swirl of emotions surrounded her: “He looked innocent to me, and I could not reconcile the face in the paper with the father I knew. I felt guilty worrying about what people thought of me while my father fought to stay out of prison. And, for the first time, I imagined how broken he felt and the pain he suffered. His humiliation seemed unsurmountable. I watched him maintain his otherwise lovable personality, covering the devastation of what really happened. I never wanted to see my father hurt.” How does the pain of one family member ripple through an entire family? How might we reach out to friends who are suffering, even when they put up obstacles to our solicitations? How deep are our friendships when we are vulnerable—what helps you in those moments?
In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, four current or former inmates serve as this month’s commentators. In examining a teaching of Rabbi Haim David HaLevy, the former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo, our commentators explore how the obligation to be concerned about the welfare of the criminal reflects on the dignity of humanity. “It is our obligation to be concerned about just law; more than that, it is our obligation to be concerned about the criminal himself; more than that, it is our obligation to be concerned with the dignity of humanity.” Michael Flinner, who is on death row at San Quentin State Prison, writes to dispel the myth “that prisoners are without redeeming value.” He urges that society “offer prisoners real-time opportunities for redemption as well as mandatory recidivism and rehabilitation programs that promise second-chance ladders to our futures.” Brittany Richardson is 27 years old and experienced great compassion and empathy from her fellow inmates during her two and a half years in the California Institution for Women. The experience put her on a path of teshuvah as she “came to see that prisons aren’t filled with monsters and evil people but with human beings who have made mistakes.” Evie Litwok spent almost two years in prison when she was in her sixties. She writes, “There are 2.2 million people in American prisons, and 6 million more are under supervised release. It is our obligation to be concerned with their suffering. We are commanded to advocate for prisoner’s human rights.” Since her release, she has advocated for prison reform. What do you learn from reading these prisoners’ stories? Are people capable of making transformative change? How does the Jewish community welcome and embrace people who are trying to make change and reenter society? What can you do to help former prisoners regain their sense f self-worth?
Below are resources for further reading and organizations that work on behalf of prison reform:
- Fact sheet on criminal justice from the NAACP: https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
- S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p16.pdf
- The organization T’ruah has created an overview fact sheet about Jewish law and incarceration: http://www.truah.org/wp-content/uploads/MIH/MIH-110-112-incarceration-jewish-law-overview.pdf
- Bend the Arc Jewish Action organizes around bail reform: https://www.bendthearc.us/about
- The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system, edited by Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times https://www.themarshallproject.org
- The Appeal is a relatively new news organization focused on mass incarceration, and produces a number of excellent podcasts about criminal justice issues https://theappeal.org/topics/podcasts/
- Witness to Mass Incarceration (WMI) is a storytelling and organizing archival project that documents the stories and experiences of formerly incarcerated and criminalized women and LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. These interviews work to challenge gender, racial, and ethnic inequity and to end mass incarceration.