The Importance of Restorative Justice

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Stacy Rigler

Are you familiar with the elements of restorative justice? Are you comfortable with this type of approach as a resolution to the ethics process? This is the final question on the Association of Reform Jewish Educator's ethics complaint form. I am the Executive Director of ARJE, and since beginning my tenure in January 2022, I have been supporting the work of our newly-formed ethics committee and learning more about this work across the Reform Movement.

Restorative justice focuses on restoring relationships when an individual or an organization has wronged another party. It is a system of justice that involves the offender, victim/survivor(s), and community in repairing the damaged relationships and working to create a path towards healing. Though related to the Jewish concept of t'shvuah,T'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. its origins are in indigenous communities that have used the practice for generations. It is a system which goes beyond the individual victim/survivor and offender by reflecting on the communal impact of harm while helping the offender make restitution with the victim/survivor.

One of my first memories of being a professional Jewish educator was when a child arrived at my office because he was rude to the teacher. "What am I supposed to do with this child?" I wondered. I knew that a lecture was not going to be helpful, nor a punishment that was not related to what he did wrong. What we did was talk about his perception of what happened in the classroom. We asked the teacher to share her perspective of what happened in the classroom. The goal was to restore the relationship between the student and the teacher, not to punish the child. The teacher and I then encouraged the child to own the inappropriate actions and take accountability. The goal was to better understand the circumstances leading up to the challenge and work towards changing those circumstances, while at the same time ensuring that the child took responsibility for their part.

In Vayeishev, we see the start of two stories, both which touch on the principles of restorative justice and reflect the role of power in a situation where harm occurs. In Genesis 37, we read about Joseph. Joseph boasts about his superiority to his 11 brothers and in response, they plot to kill him before deciding to throw him into a pit and eventually sell him into slavery. Several chapters later, in Genesis 42, Joseph has become a powerful Egyptian minister. Joseph's brothers, suffering from a famine, go to Egypt where they find themselves standing in front of their brother asking for food, though they do not recognize him. Joseph first tests them to determine if they will turn on one another the way they turned on him. They rise to the challenge and do not repeat past wrongs. This is Maimonides definition of t'shuvah, encountering a similar situation to the one that resulted in harming the victim/survivor and making different choices. Reassured, Joseph begins repairing his relationships with his brothers and reconciling with his family.

In the second chapter of this week's portion, Genesis 38, we meet Tamar, Joseph's brother Judah's daughter-in-law. Tamar was married to Judah's son Er, who died without conceiving an heir. According to the biblical law of levirate marriage, Tamar then married Judah's second son, Onan. Onan also died without an heir. Judah then kept his third son, Shelah, from Tamar. When it became clear that Judah had no intention of honoring his obligation to Tamar by letting her marry Shelah, she sought to right the wrong by disguising herself, sleeping with her father-in-law Judah, and becoming pregnant. Tamar is powerless as a widow without a child and left in limbo by her father-in-law. While her decision to "take justice into her own hands" could seem extreme, she knew that the way to restore justice was to help her father-in-law understand what his actions had done to her. When Judah hears that his daughter-in-law has become pregnant, he is at first outraged, but then he asks her more, and she helps him understand, privately, that she became pregnant by him. Judah, in response, says "She is more righteous than I." (Genesis 38:26) In this story, we see Tamar's desire to find justice, but she has no desire to embarrass her father-in-law Judah. Judah, in turn, owes up to his mistreatment of Tamar, and to his obligation towards her and her child. In this way, both characters maintain their relationship and the community norms.

When acts of injustice and harm occur, whether modern or ancient, an emphasis on listening and understanding can help aid healing and repair. By using a restorative justice approach, we can understand the hurt caused and help the offender work to take responsibility. We give the power to the victim/survivor to determine what reassurance would be helpful, what repair might look like, and we ask the community to help restore the social order. I am proud that ARJE and other organizations in our movement are learning more about restorative justice and committing to taking action to respond to those who have been harmed. This week, I remember that the practice of restorative justice learned from Indigenous communities' practices are deeply aligned with our Jewish texts and values.

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