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...

  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Guns N’ Roses Guitarist Rocks Solo Acoustic Version of Israeli National Anthem – Hatikva (VIDEO)

    Guns N’ Roses Guitarist Rocks Solo Acoustic Version of Israeli National Anthem – Hatikva (VIDEO)

    Ok, fans, question time. What do: Guns ‘n’ Roses shred-meister guitarist, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (aka Ronald Jay Blumenthal), “Hard Rock Hotel”, “Las Vegas” and Israel’s ”Hatikva” (The Hope) national anthem… all have in common? I know, you’re probably thinking, “Hmm, ‘One of these things is not like the other,’ would fit in here,” right? Um, no, turns out. Caught backstage by blogger Darren Garnick at the swanky Vegas gig in early June, Thal, acoustic guitar in hand, fretted out a sweetly melodic [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.