On American Dungeons: An Invocation

(offered at the JCPA Criminal Justice Reform Conference NY)

The image of God is the inherent identity of every human being, and so the overriding textual, spiritual concern of Torah is human dignity, nothing less. It is an honor to host this sacred convening, but more than that, to see the faces of God present and to know the open hearts in this room are connected to committed bodies.

Today’s gathering is strangely appropriate for the week in which we just read from Torah of the rebellious child. In Deuteronomy, we are told that a child who rebels against their father and mother in certain ways is to be put to death by the community. How strange and harsh. How can this be what the Torah wishes? What God wishes? How can we punish our children so severely for their mistakes?

And yet it should be clear in our ears that the same question is alive and urgent in today’s America. How can this broken system of mass incarceration be? Is this justice? Clearly not.

The good news is we are not alone in our emotional, spiritual, essentially human response to the wrongness of a system like this. The ancient rabbis who were horrified by the biblical verses and their implications for our children. Ancient lawmakers responded with deep creativity and passion. We should do no less, for our children’s sake. So we must truly ask ourselves: What is the future we wish for?

For those who have heard claims that religion should remain textually, tribally oriented, I offer the following scriptural reading from the prophet Isaiah:

I the LORD, have called you in righteousness and held your hand, and preserved you and made you a covenant for peoples and a light of the nations— To open blind eyes, to bring out the captive from prison, those sitting in darkness from dungeons. I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not yield My glory to another, Nor My acclaim to idols. The first things, look, they have happened, and the new things I do tell, before they spring forth I inform you. (Isaiah 42)

So dear friends, in a diseased national moment, where cynicism and reactive verbal violence distracts us from the hope we can bring each other and seeks to deprive our eyes of the Divine light that is the right of every human being, let us summon the moral courage to raise awareness on the impact of mass incarceration in New York and beyond, knowing that each of our voices will be necessary if we are to free our brothers and sisters sitting in the darkness of American dungeons.

May we, with each other’s encouragement, and your Grace, Holy One, make true the broken promise that this shall one day soon become the land of the free.

Thank you, all, for showing up. And thank you God, for the strength to transform these big, beautiful ideas into reality.


About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation New York, where his role is amplifying Jewish learning, leadership and values within the UJA-Federation community of supporters, staff, and partners. In 2013, he was named by Newsweek as one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America. Rabbi Creditor has been involved in the leadership of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, American Jewish World Service, AIPAC and the One American Movement, an organization dedicated to bringing together Americans of different faiths and opinions. Among his 16 books and six albums of original Jewish music are “And Yet We Love: Poems,” “Primal Prayers,” and “Olam Chesed Yibaneh/A World of Love.”