There is no set, easy answer to the question of dealing with people having served their time in prison and subsequently returning to living within the community.
Perhaps the best approach is to look at the matter, including sex offenders, from the standpoint of Jewish sources and the concepts of “hesed” and “rachamim.”These are Jewish concepts of loving-kindness and compassion.
The Jewish people are known by the popular saying, “they are ‘rachmanim benei rachmanim—compassionate—descendants of the compassionate.’”Naturally, this idea relates to all aspects of life, including dealing with troubling matters, so our disposition should be a merciful one.
Rashi, the great rabbinic commentator on Torah and Rabbinic source materials wrote that “the world exists due to ‘hesed’—loving-kindness.”
Unlike American jurisprudence which states that one is innocent until proven guilty, Judaism tends to see litigants as guilty until proven innocent.How so?According to early Rabbinic tradition, Judah ben Tabbai said of litigants coming before a judge, “When the litigants stand before you, regard them as resha’im—wicked, and when they have departed from your presence, regard them as zaka’im—innocent, the verdict having been accepted by them.” (Ethics of the Fathers, Ch. 1, Mishnah 8)
I would like to see that one who has served his/her sentence would now be treated not as a sinner but rather, as one who has done Teshuvah—repentance, and, in the process, is now cleansed.
Along with this, the Rabbis say in the Babylonian Talmud, “Whosoever wishes rachamim—compassion for their fellow, will be the first to have their own appeal answered.” (Tractate Bava Kamma 92a)
Today, of course, we are sensitized to the psychology of crime and areas of pathology, especially when pertaining to sexual addiction and subsequent recidivism, where a criminal may never be able to be healed from his or her addictions.
In such instances, it is important to employ prudence and seikhel—good common sense, protecting the society from a known predator.
Spending time in prison is not the equivalent of the Jewish process of teshuvah, of return to the good graces of God and the community.In fact, I know of a man who had sexually abused some of the Cub Scouts in his care, went to prison for it, and when released maintained that he was wrongly convicted.To fulfill the process of teshuvah, people must (1) acknowledge that they have done something wrong; (2) have remorse for it; (3) apologize to the people they have wronged; (4) compensate the people they have wronged to the best of their ability; and (5) act differently when the opportunity to sin again in the same way presents itself again.As harsh as prison is, the Jewish requirements are more demanding, requiring as they do a real change in character.
On the other hand, in many American states convicts must note that they committed a felony and served time in prison for it on every job application they fill out for the rest of their lives, and they are ineligible for many government jobs.Jewish law maintains that once a person has completed the process of teshuvah, nobody may even mention it again.They are fully reinstated in the community.In fact, those who mention their past history themselves violate Jewish law, for they have engaged in an act of ona’at devarim, oppression done by means of words.
There is one exception to this.If the felon applies for a job that will tempt him or her to repeat his or her crime, then anyone writing a letter of recommendation for such a person not only may, but must, mention that this person acted criminally in this situation in the past, and potential employers must refuse to hire such a person again lest they violate the Jewish law that requires us not to put a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14), which the Rabbis understood to mean not only the physically blind, but morally blind as well.
For more on this general topic, see Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), especially chapters 5 and 6.
We Jews live in a system of mitzvot—commandments. The Torah tells us that a system of judges and courts must be established. This, in itself, presupposes that there will be punishments for crimes. When one commits a crime for which he or she is punished, society has then exacted the prescribed punishment for the specific crime. The individual is therefore no longer a criminal, having paid the debt society demands; having accepted the dictates of the court and society. The individual should be welcomed back as a ba’al teshuvah, one who has returned, chastened and rehabilitated. The essence of Yom Kippur is this theme: that once one acknowledges one’s sin and is willing to accept the punishment, that one returns as though never having been criminalized. That is forgiveness.
But to forgive is not necessarily to forget. Only future actions that conform to one’s promise of teshuvah can allow the sinner to be truly rehabilitated. This is the ideal! But we live in a world in which reality and ideal are not always in sync. We cannot always be so idealistic. This is especially so when dealing with a sex offender; a predator whose predilection might not rehabilitate just through incarceration. For these are crimes stemming from a psychological addictive disorder, and only intensive therapy can secure real teshuvah. Prison only keeps the “addict” from the source of satisfaction.
The individual who has “done the time” should be welcomed back into the community. But the one whose psychological nature as predator has not been continually monitored professionally can be accepted as a Jew, but not as a fully accepted member of society.
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