Incarceration is a primary component of the United States’ penal code; in fact, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On December 31, 2008, the incarceration rate was 754 inmates per 100,000 residents.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “In 2008, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail, in prison, or on parole by the year’s end; that’s 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents, or 1 in every 31 adults.”

If only the prison system actually worked to rehabilitate prisoners. Alas, it fails miserably.

According to Prisons Department statistics, close to half the prisoners released from prison revert to crime and return to prison. Unpublished Home Office statistics show that the “revolving-door” syndrome, in which offenders are constantly in and out of jail, is at its worst. Among those who are over 21 years old, 58 percent end up in trouble with the law within two years of their release. In the 18–21 age group, the recidivism rate rises to 78 percent.

A fundamental principle in Jewish philosophy is that the punishments legislated by Torah are not intended to harm the criminalSounds like an ineffective system—if the system is aimed at rehabilitation. If, however, its aim is to punish, it’s quite a booming enterprise . . .1

A fundamental principle in Jewish philosophy2 is that the punishments legislated by Torat Chessed, the Torah of kindness, are intended not to harm the criminal, but to better and benefit the transgressor.

Thus, retribution is very un-Jewish. For retribution hurts and leaves wounds in its wake. Rehabilitation, however, is very Jewish. For rehabilitation cures and gives new life.

This elemental and heartening idea is beautifully captured in a biblical passage discussing the treatment of gossipers.

The Right to Remain Silent

Judaism does not believe in free speech.

Talking ill of your neighbor, even if it is the truth, is unequivocally banned. In fact, the Talmud3 equates gossip-mongering with idolatry, licentiousness and murder—the three cardinal sins—combined!

Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud tells us that “King David’s soldiers would fall at war, for although they were completely righteous, tale-bearing was widespread among their ranks… Ahab’s militia, however, although they were notorious idol-worshippers, were victorious on the battlefield because of their exceptional camaraderie . . .”4

Apparently, G‑d takes greater offense at the badmouthing of His children than at the badmouthing of Himself!

In some ways, then, the gossiper is the worst sinner of all. As such, his “punishment” teaches us much about the nature of all the punishments prescribed by the Torah.

Spiritual Acne

The gossiper’s punishment was part of a unique and evolutionary process.

His home was targeted first. It would suddenly be inflicted with tzaraat discolorations. The prescribed remedy for this tzaraat was either removal of the afflicted stones, or, in case of recurrence, the demolition of the entire home.

If the gossiper ignored the divine message intended for him, and continued to slander even after his house was “remodeled,” his leather furniture was similarly afflicted—and destroyed.

The gossiper’s punishment was part of a unique and evolutionary processIf that didn’t stop him, his wardrobe followed; and then his own body, too, became spotted.

If the spots proved to be tzaraat, he was banished from the city, to spend his time in isolation until he was healed of his malady.5

Spiritual Rehab

Both at the beginning and end of this process of punishment, we encounter the message of rehabilitation.

G‑d spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place a tzaraat affliction on a house in the land of your possession . . .

[If] the affliction has spread in the house . . . he shall demolish the house—its stones, its timber and all of the mortar of the house . . .6

On the surface, this penalty seems anything but rehabilitative!

Says the Midrash:

This is a good tiding for them, since the Amorites hid treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during all of the forty years when Israel was in the desert. As a result of the affliction, he breaks down the house and finds them.7

Now that’s a silver lining.

Both literally and figuratively, a façade was brought down, revealing gain in the place of pain.

Fast forward to the end of the tzaraat curriculum, when the afflicted individual (known as the metzora) is deported from the city, and again we discern a program of restoration.

All forms of ritual impurity demand the quarantine of the one who contracted them. This in order to safeguard the rest of the population from also contracting that particular impurity. But mingling with others who were ritually impure was permissible, as one can not become doubly infected by the same impurity.

Not so the metzora, however, who spent his time in solitary confinement—isolated even from others who shared his condition.8

He was the outcast among outcasts. He had no support group or shoulder to lean on. He was in this alone.

This distinction is telling.

The metzora’s segregation had less to do with the risk of contaminating others than it did with healing himselfThe others were in a quarantine whose purpose was to contain their impurity. The objective of their relocation was not where they were sent to, but where they were not. Or rather, with whom they were not. Therefore, socializing with each other posed no problem.

Not so the metzora, whose segregation had less to do with the risk of contaminating others than it did with healing himself.

Reflective Isolation

Rather than talk to others, he needed to talk to himself.

This wasn’t about revenge; it was about reflection.

He wasn’t being hurt because he’d hurt others in the past. He wasn’t even being isolated so that he wouldn’t come to socially isolate others in the future. He was simply being given the opportunity to get to know his present self.

People who hurt and isolate others are lonely and in pain themselves. Those who try to destroy other people’s security and happiness are themselves often sad and insecure.

The Torah—which is concerned with kindness, not power—sees the sinner as a victim, not an enemy, and therefore recognizes his need to be strengthened rather than weakened. This, the Torah perceives, cannot be done in the presence of others, but has to be done alone.

In the presence of others, he would see that which he lacked. Alone with himself, he was able to see that which he possessed.

In the presence of others, he would see that which he lacked. Alone with himself, he was able to see that which he possessedAnd so, ultimately, this was a therapeutic time for the metzora, focused not on hurting him but on curing him. Rather than confine him, this procedure aimed to free him.

Could this be the reason that the Torah portion which describes the metzora’s impurity, likened in Jewish literature to spiritual death,9 is called Tazria, which means “conception,” or the beginning of new life?10

What’s in It for Me?

Life isn’t out to get you.

It’s out to be gotten by you.

And if and when in life you are forced to punish, do it like a pro.

Imitate G‑d.

Don’t hurt out of weakness; repair out of strength.