The Velvet Kippah
Ancient Prescriptions For New Prisons
"Funny. But let's get to the point." The warden started getting nervous. "Rabbi. I am not a religious man. You are going to deliver some Torah thoughts. They have nothing to do with me. Why would I want to listen?"
"Because you need some new ideas. You are not doing such a great job here, you know."
"Why do you say that?" The warden took the bait.
"Let me enact a scenario for you. Nineteen-year-old Nimrod walks into his cell for the first time. The veteran prisoners are silent, till the guard leaves. One of them turns to the new arrival, and says, 'Hey, kid! What did they bust you for?' Nimrod lets on that he hot-wired a car and managed to drive it for two hours before getting caught. Immediately, three cellmates explode in laughter. 'You are serving time for something simple and stupid like a joy ride? If you are going to be here, at least let it be for something big.' They proceed to tell him about their exploits in drug-running, grand larceny, and extortion. Moreover, they befriend him. By the time his sentence is up, Nimrod had received quite an education in a variety of illegal occupations. The next time he is locked up, it will be for something far more profitable."
"And you, I suppose, have a better idea?" asked the warden.
"I don't, but the Torah does. The sections on criminal behavior make no mention of prisons. The Torah does, however, speak of how to deal with a thief. According to the Talmud's interpretation—and that is the only one that has legal teeth—a convicted thief can be ordered into a program of contractual servitude to pay off what he has stolen. For six years, he lives with a family. The law specifies that he must be treated as an equal. He must be given the same food, the same clothes, as his boss. If the two are travelling and find a room with only one bed, the servant gets the bad, and the master must sleep on the floor, because to do the opposite would be against the law. For six years, he is treated with dignity—perhaps for the first time in his life. People say 'thank you' to him when he helps. He picks up skills on the job. When he leaves, he is armed with self-respect and a resume." And then Rabbi Galinsky added, "Who do you think is better off? According to our way, the criminal is not treated with a slap on the wrist either. For six years, he loses his freedom, which is punishment enough. And society gets back a whole person."
The warden is won over, and accompanies the rabbi to the lecture. Rabbi Galinsky delivers a Torah thought about the similarity of the Hebrew words for clothing and criminal trespass. What do they have in common? He explains to the prisoners that their tough, criminal exteriors are superficial things that can be shed like a jacket. They don't represent their real essence. By the time he finishes, many of them are crying.
Rabbi Galinsky did not mean, the way I understood him, that the Torah's prescription for the thief would be a cure-all for crime. Societies—and criminals—change. Other means may become necessary. (It would certainly not treat the terrorist with any leniency, nor offer him any cushy comforts.) But the ethos behind that prescription is timeless, and can be applied in different ways.
The change in Israel's prisons is owed largely to an activist head of Israel's Supreme Court, and a platform of legal rights he shepherded called "Israel's Basic Law for Human Dignity and Liberty. "An enlightened society is judged by the treatment of its prisoners," said Supreme Court head Aharon Barak. "The prisoner has committed a crime and has been punished accordingly; his liberty has been taken away, but the human essence still remains. The prison walls must not come between the prisoner and human dignity."
Aharon Barak would not describe himself as observant. But the ideals of religion—especially one that is over three thousand years old—tend to get into the bones of an entire people and culture. They then shape the way people think about new problems. Sometimes those people, believing that they are at the vanguard of pursuing the very new, are unconsciously applying what is very old.
Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.