At Central Synagogue

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin at Trinity Church: d’var Torah

Posted February 12, 2019

Good morning. I’m Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, one of the rabbis of Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. Central Synagogue is among the oldest synagogues in New York and is made up of 2,600 families. We are a member of the Reform Movement, which is 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America, and more than 100 Reform congregations in New York State – a prophetic Jewish movement called to bring about a more just and merciful world.

At Central, we conducted what we called a Listening Campaign a few years ago, which helped us to identify that our community cares deeply about systemic racism in our world, and wants to participate in repairing New York State’s criminal justice system. We see it is broken, occasionally we feel its sharp edges, but we also know we are not the most impacted community, and so we have listened hard to formerly incarcerated people, to experts, to elected officials, and we have brought our faith voice, our Torah, our Jewish commitment to love, compassion, and justice to this public square, first as part of Raising the Age of criminal responsibility and now, gratefully, in partnership with Trinity Church, to stand together powerfully to help address the suffering of the most vulnerable caused by our broken bail system.

I want to ask you to imagine something with me. There are a group of rabbis – lawmakers – and they’re standing around talking in the mid-1100s, and they’re trying to figure something out about how important a specific law is.

One of them asks the others – Is it more important that we are taught not to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds? The elder of the group answers – no. That law is important, but not as important as this.

Another jumps in – is it more important that we are taught: Do not harden your heart or shut your hand to the poor? Again, the elder responds – no . . . that law is important, but it is not more important than this.

A third, a fourth, a fifth, each testing another principle: is the law to love our neighbor as ourselves more important? No. These are all very important – existentially important – but none are as important as this one law.
Now, if you are unfamiliar with the laws these rabbis are bringing up, let me be clear: these are the big ones, the biggest ones, the ones that reflect our deepest Jewish identity.

So what is this all-important law that seems to trump even the greatest statutes in Jewish tradition?

The great rabbi and teacher, Maimonides, says v’eyn l’cha mitzvah rabbah k’pidyon shvuyim. There is no mitzvah, no commandment, greater than “pidyon shvuyim” – Redeeming one who is held captive – the one with a ransom he cannot afford, or put differently, paying the money necessary to buy a person’s freedom.

So you might ask – why is this one law considered more important than all of those other ones that each seem so urgent? Because, our tradition teaches when a person is held captive and the value of their freedom is assigned a price tag – one they are too poor to pay – every one of these other laws is transgressed. Their life and well-being and future are all at risk. This law is all of those other ones combined. That is how much is at stake. That is the suffering and injustice that we have come here to address and repair.

Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds?

Is this one broken by allowing a person to remain captive for lack of money? The rabbis say yes. We know that, in fact, jails can be and have been places of known violence. We have only to think of Kalief Browder, alav hashalom, to call to mind the beatings, physical and mental, from inmates and guards, that an incarcerated person can take – all the while, awaiting a date for a trial, losing hope, losing faith in the system, bleeding from being beaten up. Bleeding from being beaten down. And we are called not to stand idly by.

Do not harden your heart or shut your hand to the poor?

This, too, is a commandment broken when we permit unjust captivity. As a person, too poor to pay their bail, languishes in jail, we know - they can lose their job, their home. They can lose their children. A person in our country who is considered innocent can lose everything. To allow a poor individual to become infinitely poorer, before even getting to plead their case, is to heap punishment upon punishment as their life crumbles beyond their bars. To not feel their pain and allow it to move us is, indeed, to harden our hearts and shut our hand to the poor.

And to love our neighbor as ourselves? Is this also at risk?

Well, if two people accused of the same crime have different opportunities available to them – one pays bail and so walks free, and one whose pockets are empty sits in jail alone, can we really say we love our neighbors as ourselves? New Yorkers of color and impoverished people are disproportionately hurt by this law and so, to love our neighbor means making all people’s pain our own – as if it was my own child at risk of prolonged pre-trial incarceration We cannot claim to love our neighbor and also turn away from inequality in the law’s execution.

Today, this year, because of a great many people who have worked hard for this moment, we have a real opportunity to systemically pidyon the shvuyim - redeem the captives. To end cash bail, to take a real step toward ending mass incarceration, and to lift the yoke of our criminal justice system off the necks of the most vulnerable.

Jewish tradition asks us to yearn for freedom. Teaches that captivity is worse than even death. And of course, there will be instances in which some individuals, based on the crime they are accused of, will be eligible for preventive detention, to be held pre-trial. Because of the value, we place on freedom, this must happen only with robust due process. Jewish tradition would demand that we hold ourselves to a very high standard before incarcerating a person before their trial. A higher standard than assumption, higher than suspicion, higher than racial bias. So we may be true to our ideals. So we may be true to one another.

We are taught that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that is how we must see one another. Holy, fragile, breakable, beautiful. May we find sacred ways to lift up New Yorkers, not crush them down – for to crush down one of us is to injure us all. Let us stand powerfully together, let us negotiate and navigate, but let us not vacillate – we will not waver on this. May we redeem those who are captives, and in doing so, redeem ourselves.