Torah delineates a variety of punishments and penalizations, but imprisonment is not among them. Torah describes Joseph’s incarceration as a feature of the Egyptian ‘judicial system’ – not as a recommendation. In Torah law, prison is not mentioned at all.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything a Jew sees or hears must teach him a lesson in his service of the Creator. This includes learning a lesson from incarceration.
Torah doesn’t regard incarceration as a legitimate form of punishment. Punishments of all sorts are listed in the Torah; monetary fines, lashes, even capital punishment – Heaven forefend – but incarceration is not counted among them.
We do find the concept of prison mentioned in the story of Joseph. “Joseph’s master had him arrested, and he placed him in the dungeon where the king’s prisoners were kept.” In fact, he reached the throne as a result of his imprisonment; a verse states, “from prison, he rose to rule.” The Torah also mentioned two other prisoners – Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker: “Pharaoh was incensed at his two courtiers . . . They were placed in the . . . dungeon where Joseph was imprisoned.” However, Torah is obviously describing an element of Egyptian culture, not a behavior recommended by Torah.
We do find two instances where Moses imprisoned Israelites in the desert: When someone blasphemed G-d’s Divine name, and when someone publicly desecrated the Shabbat. However, it didn’t serve as a punishment. It was, as the verses there continue, “to consult with G-d,” “Because the law needed been clarified.” The individuals were incarcerated only until the proper course of action could be determined. This concept does indeed exist in Jewish law: incarceration is used not as a punishment but as a practical component of the legal system.
Every Person – Even a Criminal – Has a Mission
Torah’s rational is that every person has a mission to fulfill. Putting him behind bars denies him the ability to carry it out.
Torah doesn’t sanction incarceration for a simple reason:
The mission of a human being in this world is to serve G-d by creating a dwelling place for G-d in this world. Therefore, a person must not be placed under lock and key, because that would rob him of his ability to fulfill his purpose in life. Incarceration stands in the way of him fulfilling his G-d-given mission.
Imprisonment is considered normal and acceptable in cultures throughout the world; as mentioned, we find it used in ancient Egypt, and it has existed ever since.
Civilized Nations Turn Prison into Rehabilitation
In recent decades, some countries have recognized the inherent problems in incarceration, and have turned prison sentences into opportunities for rehabilitation and growth.
However, in cultured nations which seek the betterment of society, there has been a change for the better in the use of imprisonment. They have begun to understand that the purpose is not merely to punish and cause pain, but to accomplish a goal. The first goal is that the prisoner should not be a danger to society. But moreover, we can use his prison sentence to help him become an upright citizen and to prepare for his new life – a life based on justice and morality – after he leaves prison.
There are still places where prisons are used solely as a form of punishment, but they end up causing pain and suffering to those outside of prison as well…
But here we speak of upright and just societies, where they seek to minimize the suffering of the inmates and instead focus on rehabilitating them; helping them turn a new page on life after their release to lead honest and upstanding lives, and to even serve as examples for others by sharing their experiences and its consequences.
In these countries, due to lobbying on behalf of inmates, they also allow inmates to fully observe the dictates of their religion during their sentence even when it costs the prison management extra time and effort.
They also provide occasional furloughs, and when an inmate demonstrates stellar conduct, they will even grant him a pardon and allow him to rejoin society before his sentence is over.
Shabbat Parshat Naso 5745-1985.
(Torat Menachem 5745 vol. 4 pg. 2274)