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Life Behind Bars

Life Behind Bars


A few weeks ago, BBC News reported on a group of unexpected death penalty advocates. Apparently, hundreds of prisoners serving life sentences in Italy have called on President Giorgio Napolitano to bring back the death penalty.

Italy has actually been at the forefront of the fight against capital punishment and recently lobbied the UN Security Council to table a moratorium on the practice. But at home, some of the country's longest serving prisoners
Musumeci said he was tired of dying a little bit every day
want the death penalty re-introduced. The letter they sent to President Napolitano was written by a convicted mobster, Carmelo Musumeci, and co-signed by 310 of his fellow lifers. Musumeci, 52, who has been in prison for seventeen years, said he was tired of dying a little bit every day. We want to die just once, he said, and "we are asking for our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence"

It was a candid letter written by a man who, from within his cell, has tried hard to change his life. He has passed his high school exams and now has a degree in law. But his sentence, he says, has transformed the light into shadows.

Prison in Torah Law

Mr. Musumeci has a point. The argument he employs is the reason why incarceration is not part of the Torah's penal code. Depending on the nature of the crime, a person received a fine (compensative and/or punitive damages) or corporal punishment. In extreme cases, capital punishment was called for. As is the case with all Torah-sanctioned punishments, the person's death wasn't intended to exact vengeance, and while it's function as a deterrent is referred too, neither was this its ultimate purpose. Rather, the person's death brought atonement for the sin he committed, and — in conjunction with teshuvah (repentance) — guaranteed the soul's rehabilitation.

A person must be allowed to be productive in the fullest sense The courts were not empowered, however, to rob a person of the ability to be a full-fledged productive member of society. A person who does not deserve to die must be allowed to be productive in the fullest sense, a prospect which is impossible when confined in prison.1

Indeed, it can conceivably be argued that long term incarceration violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." Is robbing an individual of the most basic human desire/need—freedom—less cruel than inflicting physical pain? I believe that any prison inmate will answer that question in a nanosecond.

While this is an issue which societies and legislatures must consider, let us for a moment consider the prison inmate's perspective. From Mr. Musumeci's point of view, whether the court's decision was prudent or not is seemingly moot. Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that he is serving a life sentence. What should his attitude be now? Is he right for seeking a death sentence?

In Our Own Lives

To a lesser degree, we can all relate to this predicament.

We are all human, and we all make mistakes. And we pay for these mistakes, sometimes quite dearly. One person partied away his college years and now doesn't have a degree. Another person made irresponsible financial decisions and now she is saddled with a poor credit rating. As the common adage goes, "You make your bed, so now you must lie in it." What attitude does G‑d expect us to have towards our mis-made beds? Are we simply to resign ourselves to our fate, justifying the misery because we "earned it"?

Here chassidic teaching makes an important distinction between the attitude we should assume before taking a certain action, and how we should view our situation after the fact. Before exercising our free choice to act in a certain way, we must appreciate that we are fully responsible for our actions and their consequences. But after we find ourselves in a certain situation, we must realize that everything is by Divine providence. The fact that we are in a certain place—regardless of why or how we got there—means that we have a Divinely ordained role to fill in that very place, under those very circumstances.

A powerful precedent for this approach to life can be found in one of the most fateful blunders in Jewish history, some 3,300 years ago. There was a time when an entire nation sinned, and was condemned to a lifetime of seemingly futile existence. Yet the ultimate significance of this "unproductive" period was that it served as a meaningful, indeed critical phase in our development as a people.

The Events

The Children of Israel were in the desert, headed for the Holy Land. But the scouts they dispatched to Canaan to reconnoiter the land returned with an ominous report. They asserted that the Land was unconquerable due to its fortifications and immensely powerful inhabitants. Instead of demonstrating faith in G‑d, the Israelites panicked: "Why is G‑d bringing us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils.... "2

And G‑d agreed. "As you have spoken in My ears, so will I do to you." The generation that was too fearful to enter the Land would never merit to cross the Jordan River and inherit the Land of Milk and Honey. They would meander about the Sinai Desert for forty years, and only after they all died out, would their children enter the Land.

The entire generation was handed a life sentence The entire generation was handed a life sentence. This was the bed they made for themselves; now they had to lie in it. For good. The day this decree was handed down—the Ninth of Av—became the most tragic day on the Jewish calendar, and the scene of many more troubles and misfortunes throughout our history.

And yet, despite the negative circumstance that brought it about, this forty-year period was, in a certain sense, the most glorious period in Jewish history. It was during these forty years that G‑d communicated the Torah to Moses, and the people of Israel imbibed the Divine wisdom at the feet of the greatest teacher of all time. It was a time of unfettered spirituality, when we were nourished by the ethereal "bread from heaven" and protected and pampered by celestial "clouds of glory," creating the ideal conditions in which to grow spiritually and fortify ourselves for the challenges to come.

A Cosmic Shabbat

True, our entry into the Holy Land was put on hold. As lofty as it may seem, sitting in a desert and studying Torah all day ensconced in miraculous heavenly clouds is not the reason why G‑d dispatched pure souls into this physical world. Instead, G‑d wanted us to enter Canaan and work the land. He wants us to become involved with a world which challenges the soul's resolve and commitment to G‑d, and through the observance of the mitzvot to imbue this physical world and everything within it with holiness and divine purpose.

And yet, once a week we observe the Shabbat—a day when no work is allowed, a day which is dedicated to spirituality, Torah study and prayer. From this day we take the strength and fortitude to successfully prevail against a hostile environment during the following six days. So although the Shabbat is "merely" a preparation for the following week, it is a mitzvah of utmost importance, considered the equivalent of all the other mitzvot combined.

Those forty "futile" years in the Sinai Desert, say the chassidic masters, became the cosmic Shabbat of Jewish history, setting the spiritual foundation for all future generations.

The same applies to each and every one of us. When a person finds himself in undesirable circumstances as a result of his own foolish actions, ultimately he is there because G‑d wants him to be there; because currently this is exactly where he must be in order to accomplish his unique mission in life.


Jails were only used by the rabbinical courts as holding cells, where accused criminals were detained for very short periods of time until their trial dates.


Numbers 13-14.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Anonymous Boston February 9, 2010

Life Behind Bars... With all due respect Sir, how familiar are you with the prison population here in US? I wonder if you realize that at least 70% of prisoners ended up there because of addictions to drug and alcohol. As Americans we do a lousy job with drug rehabilitation. They go on to feed their habits, commit worse crimes & fill up the jails. The rest of us (ashamed families) worry 24/7. Visiting my brother over the yrs we often talked about how loving & supportive Jewish people are if 1 does become addicted. Sadly he served many yrs for drug arrests. He told me that in all those yrs he'd only met 5 inmates that where Jewish. All where in for white collar crime. Blacks, Italians Spanish & Irish men fill up the jails. I don't know the exact figures, maybe somebody else does. I'd bet less than 1% of the Hebrew Faith are incarcerated. Yet all my brother spoke of, converting. Jews are nurtured, raised with love. It makes a profound difference in life when one's encouraged, educated~PEACE~ Reply

hannah jersey city, nj June 17, 2009

jail I live in a personal jail. My life has been an endless struggle and restraint for 6 years.Things are slowly improving. Only by realizing that G-d conceals himself but is still present in all things and will break the dam at the eleventh hour do I realize my freedom is near. It does all happen for a purpose. God never abandons those he has called to his Torah.Imagine how Joseph, may he rest in peace, must have felt, stuck in jail for something he didn't do. But look how it all wound up. So it is for every Jew. G-d never forgets us. His faithfulness endures forever and He remembers the covenent he made with His people.We have to be ready like Avraham and say,"Here I am." Reply

Odi April 16, 2009

penal institutions From an old combat sergeant's perspective, we have tossed in the towel in regards to rehabilitation and are drawn towards a more tortuous mindset.

Our alleged civilized society has been in steep decline where "the ends justify the means" continues to gain momentum. This impacts all decisions to lesser and greater extents.

I suspect big money exchanges hands in the business of institutionalization whereby it is more feasible to those "on the take" to sustain torture with never ending inprisonment than execution. Funds towards rehabilitation efforts are lessoned to fuel a desire for repeat offending?

While in vehement disagreement with numerous General Swartzkoff musings, one statement is appropriate though I do not remember the precise wording: "Our duty is not to pass judgement; but to arrange the meeting." I refer to the death penalty of course. Reply

Sarah Masha West Bloomfield, MI USA October 23, 2007

How about prison as a place to keep some one away from society so he/she will not harm others? A person who is so evil that we don't care(!) about rehabilitation. I know in Torah the idea of parents bringing their son to the court to be tried and killed before he committed a capital crime exists. But a criminal can do much damage without commiting a capital offense. Does society have the ability (right? duty?) to protect it's innocent members from those who would do them harm?

Extra note for the curious: I have heard that either no family was ever desperate enough to bring their son to court, or that it was done, only once, and the result was to take the son to a new home. Reply

George Pugh Glen Gardner, NJ July 24, 2007

Jail Historically the West followed a similar practice. Note that Plymouth Colony and Back Bay, did not jail, and it seemed to work for them.

Prisons were the work of British social reformers, who believed that confinement was a precondition for personal reform, hence penitenary. Further there was a strong belief that corporal punishment was cruel and of course, it later became unusal.

I do think that you missed a key argument again prisons. If you error once, you should be punished once, but with prison, the punishment goes on and on. That is the argument.

I would be interested in seeing how these issues can be resolved. Make no mistake: a lot of prison is a proxy for a death sentence, and it is crueler. I am reminded of the story of the Dutchman who cut off his dog's tail joint by joint, because it would hurt less than doing it in one stroke! Reply

Chaskel l Brussels, Belgium July 24, 2007

I cannot agree with all your conclusions. Hitler was not necessary to our fate. It didn't stop the venue of Arafat or Khadafi.
I thinh first to the dead victims. They didn't get a second chance. How can you compensate the loss of a child ? I am against bars. I agree: it is not useful. But there are recidivist If you let those peop^le free you open the door to new crimes. I agree G-d knows everuthing of the future but I thinh He let us free to make it. This the greatness of men. He is free to choose except one choice he is not authorizd not to do.
He must always choose between good and evil. This the men's choice, not G-d's.
So I agree we all have a solidarity responsability to teach all men to be good.
But also to preserve and protect life.I think, that we should give the choice to prisonners between long term jail and immediate death penalty. Many of them do know if they are able or if they want to change. In case of no, let it be no ! Their choice. Not ours. Reply

rachel July 22, 2007

Thank you so much for this clear perspective and explanation of the connection between the sin of the spies, exile, and everyday mistakes..
What a wonderful world this would be if the laws of the lands were according to the torah.
I plan on forwarding this email to many friends. Reply

David Cambridge, MA July 22, 2007

Perfect timing This wisdom is timeless and arrived exactly when it was needed. Thank you! Reply

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