Rabbi's Message

On Tuesday night, May 9, HBT hosted a GBIO Legislative Forum on Criminal Justice Reform. Thanks to the successful organizing by temple members Judith Levine, Elana Wolkoff, and Sherry Flashman, the event brought together an unexpectedly large turnout of 70-80 people from a dozen different faith communities, including a dozen HBT members. Three local state legislators took part in the forum: Senator Mike Rush, and Representatives Ed Coppinger Angelo Scaccia, and were urged to stand with GBIO on four important areas for reform

  • Repeal mandatory minimum sentences
  • Reform pretrial and bail requirements
  • Reduce/eliminate fees and fines
  • Shorten the length of time in solitary confinement

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is honored to welcome Senator Mike Rush and Representatives Angelo Scaccia and Edward Coppinger to our congregation tonight. We welcome our GBIO community, friends, and neighbors, for an open discussion of the work our Commonwealth urgently needs to pursue to bring justice to the criminal justice system.

For far too long, the emphasis in our system has been on “criminal” —and the fear and anger that those words inspire in the hearts of the citizens. Tonight, we lift up “justice” as the goal that we all share, regardless of political ideology.

The most powerful testimony to the injustice of this system that I’ve read recently is Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. In the introduction, he tells us that the book

“is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us….”

And he closes by saying,

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”

His words remind me of the words that Jews around the world read this past week, the powerful words from the Book of Leviticus. In chapter 19 we read sacred text that outlines what justice requires:

You shall not render an unfair decision, judge your kinfolk fairly. Do not stand idly by the blood of another. Do not hate your fellow in your heart. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

These words are not simply noble aspirations. No matter what our religious affiliation, or lack of affiliation, these words speak to all of us as a manual for civil society. A community must be governed first and foremost by a moral outlook that treats each individual with fairness and compassion.

Why are we meeting in a religious space tonight? What does religion have to offer our elected representatives? This teaching from the Torah serves as the nexus between religious teachings and the practice of good governance. This is the basis for the values that our religious communities bring to bear on policy, because what affects one affects us all.

Modern-day prophet, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asked a question that rings true today,

“How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

May all of us hear the voices of morality tonight, from ancient sacred texts and from the families and neighbors of those deeply affected by the suffering and shame that mass incarceration inflicts on us all. May these voices bring our criminal justice system closer to a system of justice infused with compassion.


Posted on May 11, 2017 .