(photo credit: AP [file])
'Hey, what are you doing with that tuna-and-pickle sandwich?" asked a puzzled Gerald Schwartz of the Arab prisoner. "I'm surprised you aren't keeping Ramadan," continued Schwartz, a bearded Orthodox social worker, referring to the the Muslim month of introspection and daytime daily fasting.
"I'm a secular Muslim," said Mahmoud, who was incarcerated for a misdemeanor unrelated to any political activity. "And also I am not capable of the daytime fast."
"You can't, or you think you can't?" challenged Schwartz and urged Mahmoud to try for one day.
Schwartz later recalled: "Mahmoud fasted one day, and went on to keep the entire month of daytime fasts. He was a nice guy. He found his own strength, began to believe in his ability to change, cleaned up his act, and never returned after being released. This principal applies to all."
THIS WAS an unusual case to come Schwartz's way. He has worked for decades for Shaked Le'asir, religious rehabilitation for Jewish prisoners (shaked is the acronym for shikum dati - religious rehab). The organization was founded by a quiet-spoken Texas Jew, Reb Nathan Spector, who with his wife, Shirley, raised their 11 children in an ultra-Orthodox village near Beersheba. Convinced that Jewish sources held the key to reducing recidivism among criminals, Spector pestered the authorities to let him establish Orthodox wards in one Negev prison after another.
Shaked puts into practice what Prof. Nahum Rackover preaches. Rackover won the Israel prize for a lifetime of working to incorporate Jewish law into Israel's legal system (which had been based on Turkish, British, and international law). He's just published Rehabilitation of Criminals in Jewish Law, a 600-page tome in Hebrew, with a lengthy English summary.
Rackover is adamant that we use the Hebrew title, Takanat Hashavim, a talmudic term which reflects the psychological and pragmatic Jewish view of penitence that goes back to the first-century Mishna ruling: "If one steals a beam and builds it into his house, he is allowed to make restitution in money, because this leads to the rehabilitation of penitents - takanat hashavim."
Rackover explains, "There is no need to demolish the house to restore the beam, since if we insist upon that, the offender will be prevented from repenting. This archetype extends to all similar cases, as Maimonides stresses."
RACKOVER points out that Jewish law is even more radically novel.
The Talmud tells of a man who wanted to make restitution, but his wife scolded, "If you do that, you won't be left with the shirt on your back!" and so he refrained from making restitution and repenting. So scholars made a regulation not to accept restitution in some cases.
Again Maimonides: "If the thief repents, and offers to repay, it should not be accepted from him, but we help and pardon him in order to bring penitents to the straight and narrow."
Rackover argues that Israel should invest more in rehabilitation than in prisons. Spector backs this claim with decades of experience of Shaked Le'asir showing that making religious wards available has led to a 75% success rate, when success is defined as a prisoner not returning to prison for five years after release. This contrasts sharply with an 80% recidivism rate for non-rehabilitation wards.
Shaked now has a Orthodox ward of about 50 inmates in several southern prisons. The inmates must commit themselves to thrice-daily prayer attendance, Sabbath observance and study. Those who are not working in prison-related jobs must spend their day in the study hall in a tailored program of Bible and Jewish law. For prisoners who cannot get into the religious ward or do not want to commit themselves to the rigorous regimen, Shaked sponsors optional classes in the regular wards.
"We are catalysts and instigate change," explains Schwartz, emphasizing that, "We are not part of the prison services. We are an outside NGO that provides a specific religious service."
Rackover points to a 1981 Knesset law, for which he lobbied, which encourages rehabilitation and regulates who has access to criminal records.
Jewish tradition teaches (in Mishna Gittin 5:5) that if a criminal changes his behavior, one is not permitted to remind him of his past. A thousand years ago Rabbi Gershon instituted a ban against anyone who reminded penitents of their past, and this principle is carried over in the 1981 legislation which Rackover inspired.
"Today with easy access to data banks and personal records via the Internet the law that after a certain number of years the crimes may be removed from the record is all the more important."
THIS ATTITUDE finds expression in the daily interactions of the Shaked staff with inmates.
"We offer them respect. We don't probe into their pasts, but work on changing behavior today. One inmate had a third-grade education and, as a child, had been denigrated by an abusive stepfather.
This inmate had been incarcerated six times. He got into the religious wing where he was treated like a mensch, started studying, and something clicked. He now has a stable marriage, and has had a clean record for 15 years."
Other inmates have a zigzag course. "One of the first prisoners I worked with in the religious ward was released and imprisoned within a year. However, it was for a lesser offense. A third incarceration followed, for a yet milder misdemeanor. Finally, he managed to find work and has remained out of prison over five years, our criterion for success."
Since repentance is a personal, internal act, how can we plumb the depths of a person's heart? The Talmud discusses the hiring of a ritual slaughterer who had previously been discovered selling unkosher meat. Because of his public position, and because his penitence might be a pretense, he was required to demonstrably discard a valuable piece of meat. Thus in Jewish tradition offenders must actually demonstrate penitence so they can regain the public's confidence and find work. In his book, Rackover devotes an entire chapter to restoring confidence in an offender.
"Would you hire an ex-convict?" I asked Gerald Schwartz. "It depends on the nature of the offense, the position for which he is applying, and how seriously he has demonstrated that he has changed," he replied, reflecting some of the same sources cited in Rackover's volume.
It's food for thought as we approach Yom Kippur and express remorse for our own misdeeds.
Editor's note: See the Jewish Legal Heritage Society Web site for more information mishpativri.org.il