Free John Bates

February 4, 2013 2:21 am 0 comments

John Bates.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who bestows kindness upon the vulnerable, and who has bestowed goodness on me.” —Traditional Jewish blessing

Those of us who are avid Downton Abbey fans have been waiting patiently to know whether or not John Bates will ever be released from jail, exonerated of his alleged crime, and returned to his loving wife Anna. The dramatic “Masterpiece Theater” scenes take us to the squalid and dangerous insides of a Victorian prison. The scenes help us understand the terrible conditions that awaited prisoners and did not always reflect well on our judicial system, here or across the pond, as they say.

If Bates is released from prison, and we find out that the rumor is true that he is Jewish (his real name is Harry Lifshitz), he would make the special blessing above, which many believe should only be said by prisoners accused of murder and other very serious charges. There is a debate as to whether or not one would say this blessing after imprisonment for financial crimes. According to one source, it is best to check with your local rabbi if you find yourself in this situation (honestly, that’s the least of your problems).

This blessing is familiar to some because the Talmud records that it should also be said upon several occasions: after you have crossed an ocean, after you have crossed a desert, after recovering from a serious illness and for a woman after childbirth. Many say this blessing after any life-threatening situation.

All of these instances present situations of potential danger where we aware of our vulnerability and rely on God’s grace, even when we may not always feel we deserve it. Each of these situations also involves a significant transition in either time, space or across the life cycle. It is at these worrying times that we are in greatest need of divine support and human kindness. The thrill of prison release must, no doubt, be tempered by the anxiety of being reunited with one’s family, being accepted in community and finding employment. I find this blessing deeply moving because the word “G-M-L” in Hebrew is more than an act of kindness; it is a spillover of abundance, a shower of grace.

One of the most moving prison-based pieces of Jewish text appears in the 16th century. Many centuries ago, a man named Reuben was incarcerated, and he asked to be released from jail for Yom Kippur. His request was denied but he was granted another day, of his choice, to be freed from prison to go to the synagogue. Which day or holiday should he request? The question was posed to Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, a 16th-century rabbi who authored more than 3,000 responsa. Legend has it that he died at 110. Scholars believe he probably died in his mid-90s.

The rabbi considered the possibilities and also reviewed the legal literature where he had first encountered a similar question. The answer given by another scholar was Yom Kippur, as it is the holiest day of the year and a time for profound repentance. Reuben’s second choice should be Purim because it is a time of rejoicing in the reading of the scroll of Esther and a time to display God’s great kindness on Jews in history through miracles.

But Rabbi Zimra says, “do not rely upon his words.” He was unhappy with the answer. Instead, Rabbi Zimra bases his answer on the principle that you never skip over the possibility or opportunity for a mitzvah. Every day presents us with various choices. Never put off goodness when given the chance. Since Reuben is in prison and does not know if this offer will be sustained, he must leave prison on his first opportunity: the next day.

This is the Jewish version of carpe diem. But it is more than that. Freedom and autonomy are such powerful and primal needs that we should never wait for some future time if we can access them now.

Most of us are not in prison, and we will have to wait and see if Bates ever makes it out. But there are many metaphoric prisons that trap people today: painful relationships, bad jobs, and addictive habits. When we have the chance for freedom we must take it at the very first opportunity. This does not mean running away from a situation; this often leads to later entrapment, like a prisoner who tries to escape and gets more years in prison when he’s caught. Freedom involves the personal maturity to control our lives by making good choices and sustaining them and blessing the chance to do so. Seize today.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Those of us who are avid Downton Abbey fans have been waiting patiently to know whether or not John Bates will ever be released from jail, exonerated of his alleged crime, and returned to his loving wife Anna. The dramatic “Masterpiece Theater” scenes take us to the squalid and dangerous insides of a Victorian prison. The scenes help us understand the terrible conditions that awaited prisoners and did not always reflect well on our judicial system, here or across the pond, as they say.

If Bates is released from prison, and we find out that the rumor is true that he is Jewish (his real name is Harry Lifshitz), he would make the special blessing above, which many believe should only be said by prisoners accused of murder and other very serious charges. There is a debate as to whether or not one would say this blessing after imprisonment for financial crimes. According to one source, it is best to check with your local rabbi if you find yourself in this situation (honestly, that’s the least of your problems).

This blessing is familiar to some because the Talmud records that it should also be said upon several occasions: after you have crossed an ocean, after you have crossed a desert, after recovering from a serious illness and for a woman after childbirth. Many say this blessing after any life-threatening situation.

All of these instances present situations of potential danger where we aware of our vulnerability and rely on God’s grace, even when we may not always feel we deserve it. Each of these situations also involves a significant transition in either time, space or across the life cycle. It is at these worrying times that we are in greatest need of divine support and human kindness. The thrill of prison release must, no doubt, be tempered by the anxiety of being reunited with one’s family, being accepted in community and finding employment. I find this blessing deeply moving because the word “G-M-L” in Hebrew is more than an act of kindness; it is a spillover of abundance, a shower of grace.

One of the most moving prison-based pieces of Jewish text appears in the 16th century. Many centuries ago, a man named Reuben was incarcerated, and he asked to be released from jail for Yom Kippur. His request was denied but he was granted another day, of his choice, to be freed from prison to go to the synagogue. Which day or holiday should he request? The question was posed to Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, a 16th-century rabbi who authored more than 3,000 responsa. Legend has it that he died at 110. Scholars believe he probably died in his mid-90s.

The rabbi considered the possibilities and also reviewed the legal literature where he had first encountered a similar question. The answer given by another scholar was Yom Kippur, as it is the holiest day of the year and a time for profound repentance. Reuben’s second choice should be Purim because it is a time of rejoicing in the reading of the scroll of Esther and a time to display God’s great kindness on Jews in history through miracles.

But Rabbi Zimra says, “do not rely upon his words.” He was unhappy with the answer. Instead, Rabbi Zimra bases his answer on the principle that you never skip over the possibility or opportunity for a mitzvah. Every day presents us with various choices. Never put off goodness when given the chance. Since Reuben is in prison and does not know if this offer will be sustained, he must leave prison on his first opportunity: the next day.

This is the Jewish version of carpe diem. But it is more than that. Freedom and autonomy are such powerful and primal needs that we should never wait for some future time if we can access them now.

Most of us are not in prison, and we will have to wait and see if Bates ever makes it out. But there are many metaphoric prisons that trap people today: painful relationships, bad jobs, and addictive habits. When we have the chance for freedom we must take it at the very first opportunity. This does not mean running away from a situation; this often leads to later entrapment, like a prisoner who tries to escape and gets more years in prison when he’s caught. Freedom involves the personal maturity to control our lives by making good choices and sustaining them and blessing the chance to do so. Seize today.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.