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Transforming Judgment and Mercy

Transforming Judgment and Mercy

A Rabbi’s Reflections in Support of Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio

Hands and a jail cell

Earlier this week, I testified in front of the Ohio state Senate Judiciary committee. Speaking on behalf of Reform Ohio, I represented clergy who serve more than 43,000 Jews in 34 synagogues in every corner of the state. Our faith-based group is organizing our communities around issues of Jewish values.  In October, 70 Reform Jews, including 22 rabbis visited the statehouse to lobby in support of Senate Bill 66. SB 66 returns autonomy to judges to treat probation violators within the community. It provides the options of intervention and treatment in lieu of conviction and makes time in prison for violating probation shorter and less likely.

In our Jewish text and tradition, one of the highest values is something called teshuva. This Hebrew word can be translated as repentance or return – return to God and return to better versions of ourselves. In Judaism, the holiest days of the year are Rosh Hashanah, our New Year, and Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, which happen just ten days apart. This past fall, during the Jewish New Year, I stood before my congregation and spoke about Senate Bill 66. Part of the message of Rosh Hashanah is that the world can only continue to work if we combine judgment with mercy. We have a role in making the world stand by helping to create a balance between the two. 

One of the great sages of the Talmud, our central book of law, taught, “Great is repentance for it transforms one’s sins into merits.” We generally think of repentance as a way of achieving expiation for the wrongs we have done.  However, the Talmud invites us to think about repentance in a new way.  It is not about changing the past, but about defining a new direction for the future.  We evolve morally, becoming the kind of people who no longer fall back into the patterns of misconduct that defined our past.

This is not just a matter of values but also important to the lives of the people I serve. My congregation’s past president has a daughter who was incarcerated for a felony drug crime. I have seen and heard as their family walked the hard road of trying to find housing, work and a restored life for their daughter after serving time in prison. Being able to expunge her record not only helped restore her life, but helped bring some level of wholeness back to her entire family.  In the words of Beth Tikvah’s past president, “teshuva is not something we only do in shul, it’s an everyday thing. We need to remind ourselves that part of our job is to help those around us do teshuva.”

Right now, Ohio’s criminal record expungement laws are too narrow. There is little room for teshuva or repentance in our law. People must be given the opportunity to work toward the transformation of their sins into merits. At Reform Ohio, we have spoken with rabbis, Judges, elected officials and restored citizens throughout our state. We have learned that many judges want to offer people the opportunity for redemption, but their hands are tied.  We have heard stories about the doors slammed in the faces of those carrying around criminal records that they have already served time for and who have done the hard work of repentance. Senate Bill 66 would restore the opportunity for people to get their lives back. This is especially relevant for the addiction epidemic in our state.  Addiction is an illness that leads to frequent violations – clergy like myself witness this first hand. This legislation will make access to loans, jobs, housing and education attainable once again.  People will be less likely to return to the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration, and will be more likely to remain in communities successfully. Including rehabilitation as a purpose of felony sentencing is vital to making sure that Ohio communities can thrive and to respecting the sanctity of human life.

On October 25th, 70 Jews from across Ohio held 29 legislative visits with our state representatives. We felt the urgency then and we feel it even more now, as we have been and will continue to watch the bill’s progress. I am urging the Ohio Senate to bring Senate Bill 66 to a vote so this important legislation can give people the chance to transform sins into merits.

Rabbi Rick Kellner is the senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington, Ohio and a leader with Reform Ohio. Learn more about Reform Ohio's criminal justice advocacy work. 

Published: 2/22/2018