Olam Hadash: Towards a Jewish Theology of Abolition

by Ari Lev Fornari, Faculty

An outdoor memorial for Breonna Taylor, arranged in a circle. There are flowers, a large portrait of Breonna, and various smaller artpieces, including a Black Power fist.
This piece is an excerpt from R’ Ari Lev’s Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Tzedek

Last week a grand jury in Louiseville, KY exonerated all three officers in the case of the murder of Breonna Tayler, and merely indicted Detective Brett Hankison for wanton endangerment, for the shots fired into neighboring apartments, but not for the murder of Breonna Tayler. 65 years to the day that an all-white jury found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder, which they later confessed to.

We arrive at this new year with an intimate awareness that the space between the world as it is and the world that we long for is cavernous. We arrive bereft and betrayed by a state and a system that have always, and continue to devalue Black lives. We arrive not only to affirm that Black lives matter, but that Black lives are precious. And we call upon the prophecy of Arundhati Roy and Jewish tradition to guide us. 

Arundhati Roy writes,

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past 

and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. 

[This pandemic] is a portal, 

a gateway between one world and the next.” 

Which is why we are here. To imagine our world anew. 

In Hebrew the word for world is olam – 

As in Adon Olam – Master of the universe

As in Melech HaOlam – Sovereign of all the World

As in Hayom Harat Olam – the world is pregnant with possibility.

It is a word that spans both time and space. It describes eternity and existence in one beat. As in L’olam va’ed – forever more, eternally.

And not only that but, rabbinic literature is replete with references to the idea that

האדם הוא עולם קטן

There is no more profound manifestation of a world, than that of a human being.

We are worlds unto ourselves. Microcosms of existence. Which is also why we are here. Not only to imagine a new world, but to imagine ourselves anew. 

These are inseparable processes – because the world needs you whole. Uvtuvo mechadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit. Every single day, creation is renewed. We have the chance to create ourselves and our world anew. Every single day. 

Lucky for us Jewish tradition is replete with stories about personal and collective transformation, stories in which what seemed completely impossible becomes reality. Stories in which our ancestors transcended the narrowest of circumstances and created the world anew. 

And while sometimes we call this a miracle and credit it to the Holy One, more often than not the Sages, of blessed memory, go out of their way to recognize it as human creativity and agency. Or perhaps more aptly, the sages understand that the miraculous is ever present in our world and in our actions.

One midrash wonders: How did Noah manage to survive the flood and live to see his children exit the ark, thus begetting a new generation of humanity? How did Moses go from fleeing from Pharaoh to plunging him into the sea? How did Joseph go from being shackled in prison to a governor in Pharaoh’s court? How did Mordechai go from being ready for the gallows to executing his executioners?

In other words, what made it possible for Noah and Moses and Joseph and Mordechai to transform their circumstances, to live into a radically new reality? Now the midrash doesn’t just ask the question. It actually goes way out of its way to offer an answer. And in every case, for each of these people, the answer is the same. 

אֶלָּא רָאָה עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ

It was because of their ability to see a new world. An Olam Hadash. A world renewed.

Each of these people was able to imagine new ways of being and living. And they allowed that vision to hold them steady through profoundly difficult circumstances. 

In the days after the murder of George Floyd, may his memory continue to be a source of transformation, Black leadership across the country mobilized people to take their grief and their rage to the streets. 

On Sunday, May 31st, as the sound of helicopters roared above West Philly and the smell of tear gas wafted towards my windows, there was a request from Black clergy and comrades for white clergy to come to 52nd street, to provide spiritual support to protestors and accountability to the police.

As I got closer to Malcolm X Park, it was abundantly clear that our clergy garb was useless in the face of SWAT munitions and a literal armored tank pacing back and forth in front of the YMCA. In the midst of state sanctioned chaos, two young black protestors walked slowly and deliberately towards the line of armored vehicles and armed police in riot gear. With their hands raised above their heads, they held signs that read: “Who are you protecting?” and “Do you really care?” 

From 150 feet away, police fired tear gas canisters at and beyond them, into a crowd of neighbors, protestors and clergy standing in witness. With each blast the crowd scrambled to take cover, hiding behind sign posts and adjacent buildings. People shared water and first aid supplies, smothering the gas under overturned trash cans.

That day on 52nd street, the police protected nothing and kept no one safe — instead, they perpetrated harm against a group of neighbors who gathered to call attention to a legacy of police violence in black neighborhoods. Those signs said it best, Who are they protecting?

After several hours of confrontation, I headed home. Walking with my friend and comrade Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, I remember asking her, ‘What comes next?’ While it may have seemed like a practical question, in my heart it was more existential. 

What will it take to live in a radically different world?

Without skipping a beat she responded, “We need to defund the police.” While I had read the policy statements of the Movement for Black Lives, it felt as though this was the first time I was really hearing this phrase. That week the hashtag #defundthepolice went viral. In the days and weeks that followed several major cities including Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore and Austin proposed major budget cuts to the police. And the Minneapolis city council unanimously voted to eliminate the city’s police department and establish “a department of community safety and violence prevention,” marking the first step toward establishing a new “holistic” approach to public safety. And in the months since then it has been on the lips of every presidential candidate up and down the ballot. 

What made the radical shift in the national conversation about policing possible? For these tectonic shifts all praise goes to the indomitable spirit of Black and Indigenous people in this country who have been organizing for centuries to abolish slavery and its mutations, and to the fierce leadership of organizations like Black Visions, Reclaim the Block, and MPD150 in Minneapolis. And right here in Philadelphia, organizations like the Amistad Law Project, Philly We Rise and The Black Radical Collective.  

For their ability to see a new world. An Olam Hadash. A world renewed.

If you want to fully understand the call to defund the police — read the full drash here! For now, I want to focus on developing a Jewish theology of abolition that can support us to personally and collectively transform.

Central to a Jewish theology of abolition is the concept of Teshuvah, the fundamental belief in the inevitably of and our capacity to change. Judaism places endless value on our capacity as people to heal, forgive, and change. So much so that it says, 

 מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין

A person who has done teshuvah is even more righteous than a righteous person who did not err to begin with!

At the heart of a Jewish theology of abolition is the knowing that teshuvah is always possible. In the years when I worked as a prison chaplain, the most common longing of the men I had the privilege to study Torah with was to change, was to be given a chance to do things differently. Which is nearly impossible in prison. What the path of teshuvah makes clear is that real change requires human relationship. Not solitary confinement, not being cut off from your children, your family, your friends. Not being moved around from state to state. 

Teshuvah offers a radically different model of justice because of its insistent emphasis on restoring both relationship and property whenever possible. The Path of Teshuvah is fundamentally a path of restorative justice rather than punishment.

Every experience I have ever had with prisons has reinforced the exact opposite idea. Take just one example. According to Jewish law, in the case of someone who has done Teshuvah, it is forbidden to remind them of their previous transgressions. In our country, you are obligated to reveal your criminal record every time you apply for a job, a mortgage, a loan and the list goes on. In this way, prisons and the entire carceral system are antithetical to Jewish concepts of interpersonal and communal repair. 

The Jewish vision for how we keep ourselves safe is not with armed police but through the healing and transformative process of teshuva. Take a moment to imagine and feel into this world in which this notion of teshuva is central to how we create safety and address harm. This is what abolitionists are imagining.

For those of us who are white, I want to invite you to claim your lineage in a long line of white abolitionists who have divested from white supremacy culture. To become, as Mab Segrest calls it, “a race traitor.” The system cannot survive without our complicity and complacency. We have a role to play.

In this moment, we must stop questioning the tactics and strategies of these uprisings. We must understand them as a cry for justice and stop buying into the fascist narrative of law and order. As I have learned from so many, we must not confuse the order of a heavily policed society with freedom. In the words of Kendra Van Der Water, “We must stop asking what they are doing and start asking why!”

And here are three things we all can do!

One: We need to practice abolition by committing to not calling the police in our homes and our places of work. We need to talk to our families, our coworkers and our neighbors and make a plan for what we will do when we otherwise would have called the police. How will we keep each other safe in times of crisis? If you can’t yet imagine a world without police start by going to the website www.survivedandpunished.org.

Two: We need to support Black-led organizing to defund, dismantle and abolish police and policing in our cities. Take time to understand the ecosystem of your city and then get involved. Here in Philly, we can look to The Amistad Law Project and YEAH Philly. As a congregation, we are actively supporting YEAH Philly’s campaign to buy a building on 52nd street. This is the beginning of what we hope will be a movement partnership. I encourage you to give to their GoFundMe after Yom Kippur.

And, three: We need to keep learning! 

To root down into Jewish tradition to claim and reclaim abolition theology and come to own our sacred texts. You can start by reading the articles and sources in the footnotes of this piece. 

The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the uprising of the last four months have clarified for me that it is not enough to say Black Lives Matter without divesting from the systems that oppress them and investing in their wellbeing.

Anything short of that would be akin to insincere Teshuvah. Which the rabbis liken to a person who enters a ritual bath, a mikveh, while holding onto a lizard, an impure object. If we really believe that life is precious, then we must divest from the lizard that is prisons and policing.

We must do the work to educate ourselves and each other, so that we can, as an agudat achat, as an indivisible spiritual entity, join this liberation movement. 

We are living through narrow times, and we are called to remember the merit of our ancestors, Noah, Moses, Mordechai and Joseph, who transcended their circumstances by envisioning an entirely new world!

The midrash I began with actually offers two answers as to what allowed our ancestors to survive near annihilation.

First: Ela ra’a olam hadash.

That they could envision a new world. 

But also that they sustained others. 

זָן וּמְפַרְנֵס

Noah sustained everyone in the Ark. Moses sustained the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years. Joseph distributed grain during the 7 years of famine. And Mordechai, this one I am particularly partial too as a trans person, Mordechai nursed Esther, the midrash tells us. 

On the precipice of annihilation, our ancestors had the courage to dream big and take care of each other. And according to our sages, that is what saved them. And that is what will save us.

May we draw on the courage of our ancestors to see the world not as it is, but as we know it should be, to see olam hadash, the world renewed. A world where life is precious. May this be the year. Gmar Hatimah Tova.

​[1] This sermon was written in hevruta with Hannah Sassaman, Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, and Rabbi Benay Lappe. With gratitude to the Catalyst Project and the Anne Braden Program. See the full piece here: https://www.kol-tzedek.org/olam-hadash.html.
[2] https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.
[3] See also Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:
שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת…מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא
וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא.
Anyone who destroys a single life, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world.
And anyone who sustains a single life, it is considered as if they sustained an entire world.
[4] Genesis Rabbah 30:8.
[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2020/08/13/at-least-13-cities-are-defunding-their-police-departments/.
[6] ​https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/26/884149659/minneapolis-council-moves-to-defund-police-establish-holistic-public-safety-force.
[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html.
[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html.
[9] See Genesis 39.
[10] See Exodus 2.
[11] See Exodus 21.
[12] Deuteronomy 23:16-17.
[13]  Rabbi Shai Held writes, “It is hard to overstate the revolutionary implications of these verses. As a contemporary Bible scholar puts it, for the Torah ‘to legislate so contrary to the universally accepted norms for the treatment of slaves indicates an intentional critique of the very nature of the institution itself.’
[14] B.T. Brachot 34b. Also see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 7:4.
[15] There are so many other examples, including the concept of life sentence without parole, otherwise known as Death by Incarceration, mandatory minimums, the “three strikes and you’re out” rule. All of this was written into the 1994 Crime Bill. Watch the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th for a greater understanding.
[16] So much of this was possible due to the vision and conviction of Stefan Lynch, who was president of Kol Tzedek at that time. You can read his words here.
[17] https://www.kol-tzedek.org/blm.html.
[18] One place to start: https://www.creative-interventions.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/CI-Toolkit-Final-Section-2-Basics-Everyone-Should-Know-Aug-2020.pdf.
[19] Another Yom Kippur Abolition sermon by Brant Rosen: https://rabbibrant.com/2017/10/01/sermon-for-yom-kippur-5778-another-world-is-possible-a-jewish-view-on-policeprison-abolition/.

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