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The Jewish Mandate To Take Responsibility for Torture

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The Jewish tradition, in many ways, is based on the notion of teshuvah: repenting, renewing and repairing our ways. We all make mistakes, and if one reads the Torah carefully, we see that even God sometimes makes mistakes; for example, note God's regret in making humans in the beginning of Genesis and God's desire to wipe out the Israelites in Exodus.

Built into our way of understanding the world, and our place in it as human beings created in the image of God, is the idea that we can examine our lives, see where we have erred, acknowledge those errors and hopefully, as the great sage 12th century sage Maimonides reminds us, not make the same mistakes again and again.

In looking at the situation in Guantanamo Bay, and the continued imprisonment and mistreatment, of people who have not been convicted of or tried for a crime, in some cases after almost eight years, I think that the Jewish notion of personal responsibility and teshuvah is not being followed.

How ironic is it, after all, that England, the country which many early Americans fled, coming to this new land to establish a democracy of the people and by the people, is coming to grips with the mistakes they made in the days after 9/11, and now is compensating British citizens whom they have identified were wrongly treated while the United States refuses to budge? The British government is owning up to its mistakes, which involved difficult and challenging decisions in the aftermath of 9/11 and the global war on terror launched by the United States and several of its allies. President Obama, in his campaign, promised to close the prison in Cuba, and that has not happened. In fact, as a recent opinion piece from The New York Times points out, the very opposite seems to be occurring, with the Justice Department denying claims and continuing to hold people without convictions.

Jewish values, and I would argue Jewish law, calls on us to rise to our higher and better selves, own up to the mistakes that we made, even if those mistakes were deemed to be the right decisions in the moment. No doubt the months and years after 9/11 were trying and very painful for us as a country, and a world, but that doesn't permit us to stomp on our values and ignore the very ideals upon which this country was founded. The Jewish tradition of teshuvah is one that can be very useful in this time. Teshuvah allows us to accept responsibility for our actions, apologize and try to right any wrong. Teshuvah is not a sign of weakness or defeat; rather, it is a sign of strength, good judgement, personal resolve and human dignity.

It is never easy to admit when we make mistakes, but it can be one of the greatest moments in a person's life. The Talmud teaches us that where a person who sins and repents stands, a truly righteous person can never stand. No person is perfect, no country is perfect. Continuing to hide behind fear will only extend the pain, not solve the problem, help us heal and move us forward. Torture is always wrong, period. It is time to admit that, do the right thing and own our mistakes. This is what leadership is all about. We are not protecting anyone, and in fact we are only strengthening those who hate us, by continuing to practice torture, wrongful imprisonment and other travesties of justice. Our higher angels are weeping. Will we respond?

This piece was originally published on Rabbis for Human Rights blog.

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