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October 5, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Voting for teshuvah

By RABBI JASON ROSENBERG Congegation Beth Am, Tampa

As I write this, we are only a few days removed from the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, but we haven’t yet ended Sukkot. Our tradition teaches us that the Book of Life is not given its final seal until Shemini Atzeret brings a close to Sukkot. That means that we are still in a period of teshuvah – of repentance, and of forgiveness.

Anyone who’s been to synagogue during this time is well aware of what an emphasis our religion places on teshuvah. We believe that, except for the most grievous of transgressions, it is always possible to do teshuvah – there is almost nothing for which we cannot make amends, and for which we should not be forgiven. “A fully righteous person cannot stand in the place of someone who has done teshuvah,” according to our Talmud (Berachot 34b). Making a misstep, and then paying the price, is how we get better. It’s one of the great lessons of our tradition.

That’s why so many rabbis, myself included, are speaking out in support of Amendment 4 this November, which restores voting rights to former felons (except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses). Currently, Florida is one of only four states in which felons do not automatically regain their right to vote upon completion of their sentences. And, the process by which a former felon can regain his or her right to vote is difficult, expensive, and is rarely successful. As a result, there are approximately 1.4 million people in the state who are being denied this basic, fundamental civil right.

It is appropriate for someone to be punished when they have broken the law. But, our legal system, and Jewish ideas about justice, also teach us that their punishment should be appropriate and proportional to their violation. No one should be punished forever for a transgression (outside of those who are guilty of the most heinous of crimes, of course). Withholding the right to vote for the rest of a person’s life is deeply unjust. There’s also evidence that it’s counterproductive – there is a correlation between allowing released prisoners to reengage civically and reduced recidivism. So, it’s not only good morality to restore people’s voting rights, it’s also good for the society at large.

Rabbis getting involved in political causes is always a controversial matter, and I understand why people may be uncomfortable that many of us are publicly supporting this ballot initiative. But I’m willing to do so in this case for two specific reasons. First of all, this seems to be the incredibly rare example of a political issue which is nonpartisan. Restoration of voting rights has support from across the political spectrum. It truly does not seem to be a matter of “left versus right” so much as “right versus wrong.”

And, as much as I try to be respectful of the spectrum of political belief within our community, and of some people’s desire to keep their religion, and their synagogues, as places free from politics, I am also aware that our tradition is, in some senses, deeply political. We believe in justice (“Justice, justice shall you pursue” being one of the most quoted verses of Torah), and we know that justice cannot exist in theory; it only exists in the real world. Which means that although we should strive to be as open and nonpartisan as possible, we simply can’t remove ourselves completely from the political process and still remain true to the mandates of our religion.

I hope that you’ll agree that Amendment 4 is a righteous and moral initiative, and that it is in keeping with the values of our religion. I hope you’ll spread the word, and vote “Yes on 4” in November. And, I hope we’ll soon see the fulfillment of the words of our prophet Micah, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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