Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Freedom, Imprisonment and Redemption: The Naïve Idealism of the Torah–a dvar Torah (ish) for late Bereishis / early Shemos / Bo

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In historical Judaism, freedom and imprisonment are just two sides of the same möbius strip. Inner and outer freedom is the prime concept of the Torah and of Jewish tradition. Yet in Judaism, freedom is at once freely given and at the same time, never without a price tag.

Captivity plays an almost schizophrenic role in the Tanach, and indeed, throughout Jewish history. On one hand, we find the prisonless society described in Exodus. But then, there is the forced captivity of an innocent described in the laws of the “yefes toar” – the beautiful woman taken in battle. And, though Judaism is far from an ascetic tradition, both ancient and modern Judaism have glorified, to an almost grotesque extent, the concept of spiritual redemption through imprisonment.

How do these seemingly opposite concepts build upon and complement each other? And of what use are they in the modern world? Our culture is widely assumed to be “Judeo-Christian” in character, but little remains today of the idealistic Jewish approach to crime and punishment.

Criminals and Victims

If Jewish life begins with Bereishis (Genesis), there, too, begins the complex Jewish relationship with prison. The first Jewish imprisonment, like most that have followed