US prison population got rabbi thinking


WHEN Rabbi Joseph Friedman worked as a criminal lawyer, he noticed that there were 23 males for every female in American prisons - an observation that changed his life.

Joseph is the son of Rabbi Samuel Friedman, who was the rabbi of a small Orthodox synagogue in Wilmington, North Carolina.

When he was 11, his parents sent Joseph to Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim Talmudical Academy in Baltimore.

Joseph, who did not initially want to follow in his father's rabbinical footsteps, said: "My parents sent me away because there was no Jewish education in our city.

"I got a very good basic foundation in the yeshiva world. The high school teachers were all on the level of roshei yeshiva. There were no yeshivot for them to head so they found jobs teaching high school to American boys."

Joseph dropped out after a year at Yeshiva University because he wanted to get more of a secular education.

During his university days, Joseph taught in an inner city public school, before qualifying as a lawyer and working for the US government for 11 years as a disability lawyer before going into private practice with a law firm.

But the question of the disproportionate male prison population eventually changed Joseph's life and led him to study to be a rabbi and write a book on feminism and Judaism.

"As a lawyer I did a lot of prison work," he said. "There were 2.3 million males in the US penal system today and only 120,000 women.

"I started thinking why the vast majority of crime is committed by young males. There is a very striking disparity. That is not the population, which is roughly half-male and half-female. If it was based on population, half the jails should be filled with women. It's not that way.

"That started me thinking when I was a lawyer that that disparity must have some meaning. The meaning I came to was that women can control their evil inclinations far more seriously than men can.

"I believe women have an inner strength."

Joseph jumped at the opportunity to study Torah full-time when he discovered that his legal work was winding down.

He said: "A lot of professionals would dream of going back to their yeshiva days. I had the opportunity, so I took it."

Six years ago Rabbi Friedman began writing The Inside Story - Biblical Personalities, which has much to say on women and Judaism.

"Judaism is replete with pro-feminist, pro-women ideas," he said. "In my book women permeate almost every chapter.

"I wanted to show that Orthodox Judaism is extremely pro-feminist. According to the kabbalists, women have an inner strength.

"The emanation of God is neither male nor female. God deliberately wanted to create the two tracks of a man and a woman. He gave each emanations.

"According to the early kabbalist Moshe Cordovero, women are private, internal beings like God who is a private, internal, invisible and supreme being, and a woman is too. God gave women gevura (discipline) and men were given chesed (kindness).

"To me it was an oxymoron, counter-intuitive. I would think that women were kinder than men and that men would have strength. But it is the opposite.

"Women have internal, mental strength. Physical strength is just superficial, an external dimension. Internal strength is a mental dimension, restraint.

"The Ethics of the Fathers says, 'Who is strong, someone who can restrain his or her evil inclination'. Women have that much more powerfully than men. It's the opposite of what people think."

The rabbi asked: "Why did the serpent come to Eve first, if man was the dominant, superior one?

"Because she was the stronger spiritually, more connected to God, the one with inner strength. The serpent knew that if he could deceive Eve, Adam would crumble and he did. Adam did not put up a fight. It was Eve who did that."

Despite its publicity blurb, The Inside Story - Biblical Personalities does not deal only with the issue of women. It begins with the story of Jonah, discussing the issues of xenophobia, nationalism and universalism.

The rabbi said: "I chose to begin with Jonah because the prophet has been accused of being chauvinistic and xenophobic for not wanting to save the non-Jewish Assyrians.

"But Judaism is the most universalistic of religions. We are a non-exclusive religion."

Then the book gets to the point in the story when Jonah was swallowed by a whale. According to Rabbi Friedman, the prophet was swallowed by not one but two whales, first a male whale and then a female whale.

In the first male whale, which represented strict justice, the prophet saw no point in praying because his fate was sealed.

But in the second female whale, which represented rachamim (mercy), from the Hebrew word rechem (womb), the prophet began to pray for forgiveness for himself and was later able to pray for the repentance of the wayward Assyrians in Nineveh.

A similar message on the powerful female dimension of prayer comes when the rabbi deals with how childless Hannah set the precedent for how all should pray.

Finally Rabbi Friedman ends on women's contribution to the coming of the Messiah.

He writes: "The Messiah is derived from the feminine side of God's emanations. For man controls evil, but woman eradicates it."

But women's influence is not always totally to the good. Topically to the current situation in the Middle East, Rabbi Friedman attributes the current hostility of the Arabs, who claim descent from Ishmael, to Sarah's banishing of him as a child with his mother Hagar.

Rabbi Friedman suggests that the matriarch's "gender equilibrium was out of kilter" in that in protecting her own son, Isaac, she allowed more masculine qualities to be exhibited in her harsh treatment of her step-son.

Now in his second career Rabbi Friedman is touring America, talking feminism and the Torah.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph