Stephanie D. Kolin | February 24, 2017
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His name was Albert Cortez. He was in my 4th grade class at P.S. 40, not far from here. He was a kid who had a tough time with school. And a tough time at home. One day, his misbehaving went a step too far. And our teacher lost it on him. It happens. But what sticks with me was his punishment. She instructed us all to pretend he was invisible. To ignore him, as if he didn’t exist. I remember the devastating look on Albert’s face as his teacher, his friends, turned their back on him. Should he have been disciplined? Probably. But somehow this punishment felt cruel and destructive. And so I walked over to Albert and asked how he was doing. And he smiled. But that moment has always stuck with me. And it always makes me think about what is the purpose of punishment. What helps, what hurts? What is counter-productive? Compassionate? Effective? Making a kid feel more invisible and worthless than he already did didn’t strike me as right, but how do we know what is?
In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, our tradition asks the same question. We do a deep dive into the minutiae of the law – various crimes people commit, how punishment works, and a whole slew of mitigating circumstances that affect sentencing.
Eleh hamishpatim...our text begins – these are the laws. But in Torah, mishpat doesn’t just mean “law.” It specifically means a legal sentence in a court and it describes a divine balance of justice in the world. So these laws and the consequences for breaking them – are elevated to a level of sacred significance. And they have what to teach us about who we are as a people.
Take the very first scenario laid out in this parsha. The text talks about the rules surrounding an eved Ivri – a Hebrew slave. So, first – what are we doing with Hebrew slaves? Well, we learn that this is a person who stole something, was caught, and could not afford to pay the person back for what they stole. And so the consequence for that is that they become a Hebrew slave. And this is where it gets interesting.
Rav Simha Zissel Ziv, a rabbi from the mid-1800’s, teaches that, in other legal systems, criminals are imprisoned – a punishment of simple retribution. While in prison, he explains, a thief will learn from other criminals, becoming hardened in his ways, and even better at them. Upon leaving prison, he will have nothing and so will very likely resort to more crime. The system set up for the Hebrew slave, however, serves to rehabilitate the thief while allowing him to right his wrong by repaying his debt. He moves in with a family, and Jewish law requires the master to treat the offender honorably, like any other member of the household. This experience helps to move him further away from the mentality of a thief. Finally, when the servant leaves after serving his time, the family gives him resources that he can use to build a productive and successful life.
It’s really quite an amazing picture. Instead of a system built to punish, our tradition reflects a system built to rehabilitate and restore – to provide a second chance. With support, resources, and an investment in this person, they can change their life’s trajectory.
This is actually something we’ve been learning a lot about here at Central recently. Through our Listening Campaign, we found that criminal justice reform and racial equality are high on the list of things we care about as a community. We learned there is much we would like to fix about the system and we know we can’t do it all. But we learned also that we can change the system for one of the most vulnerable populations caught up in it – children. Right now, in NY State, 16 and 17-year-old kids are treated as adults in the criminal justice system. The only state in our country, along with North Carolina, that does so. These kids – 70% of whom are children of color – don’t, then, get access to the support, resources, and rehabilitation opportunities that are provided in the juvenile system, where there are safeguards to involve parents, social workers, or other professionals in the process. It’s just straight up retributive punishment. And while they await trial or serve their sentence, they can be housed with actual adults, where they are subject to extraordinary abuse, come out broken and beaten, hardened and hurting – twice as likely to offend again and 36 times as likely to take their own lives.
So, two weeks ago, we joined the Raise the Age coalition and launched our campaign to treat 16 and 17-year-olds who commit non-violent crimes in NY State in an age-appropriate way, giving them a real shot at a second chance. So that when they make a mistake, as teenagers are sometimes known to do, they don’t have to see their futures disappear before them.
And because this legislation is up for a vote soon, we, as Central, have a real chance to make a difference. On Monday, March 13th, Governor Cuomo will join us on this bima before a sanctuary full of New York’s faith community – you, other synagogues, our Christian and Muslim faith partners, and our teens. We will hear stories of those directly affected, hear from our Governor, and raise our voices together as one in our commitment to live our values which teach us that when we can rehabilitate and restore lives, especially those of children, we carry out justice – a divine justice, our Torah says.
There is much more to Raise the Age and our strategies to take action on it than I can explain here this evening- and we hope you’ll head over to our webpage under the heading of “community organizing” To read about how it is not only compassionate but good for our state, and more just for the children in our courts and prisons.
We listened – and you said that the state of our criminal justice system and its disproportionate incarceration of people of color is something deeply broken in our world. How blessed we are to have a chance to do something about it. Our clergy team, our Central in Action Leadership Team, and our Raise the Age leaders hope to see you in this sacred space on March 13th, to be part of the powerful groundswell of New York’s interfaith community acting together for a world of greater justice and compassion.
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