Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
September 27, 2012
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How long can one person be alone before they begin to suffer? In Jonah’s case, the answer is three days and three nights. Cast into the sea and swallowed by a big fish in return for his stubbornness towards God, he stews and simmers until his loneliness gets to be too much for him. Jonah’s imprisonment at the bottom of the ocean is the physical manifestation of his severed ties to other humans and to God. He prays, praises God as the source of deliverance, and is ultimately freed, ready to do God’s bidding in Nineveh.

Yet on some level, the fact that Jonah views being alone to be so torturous seems surprising. After all, he spends much of the book reveling in his anti-social nature. He runs away from his mission to Nineveh; he goes to sleep on the ship rather than socialize with the sailors; and he waits outside the city, alone, to see if it will be destroyed. What makes the belly of the fish different? Is it claustrophobia? Or it is the involuntary separation from other people that makes Jonah’s imprisonment so intolerable?

It is this last question that has been on my mind this year with Yom Kippur approaching. After all, most days, a little solitude seems appealing. My life—between work, husband, and two small children—is rarely quiet, and I am rarely alone. But I cannot truly imagine days, weeks, months, or even years without touching another human being, holding a normal conversation, or looking someone else in the eye.

Yet, there are thousands of prisoners across the United States in just that situation. On any given day in the United States, more than 80,000 people are held in isolation or solitary confinement or administrative segregation or some other term for spending 23 hours a day more in a small cell, no bigger than a closet, completely alone. We think that “lock them up and throw away the key” is reserved for the “worst of the worst”, but the reality is that for prisoners in state prisons and jails, time spent in the hole results from infractions of prison rules, such as fighting or obtaining contraband. It is hard to have sympathy for people in jail—who cares what happens to those who have done something wrong? Our desire for revenge (or more likely, our total indifference) does not care if our tax dollars are being used to mistreat people, because while they are in prison, we don’t care much about how they are treated. Yet solitary confinement is seen to be psychological torture. When people are alone for even days at a time, they are slowly driven insane, and many never recover. Moreover, since over 95% of criminals are eventually released back into the community, their mental condition is our concern, because they will be on the streets with all of us.

Recently, my work at Rabbis for Human Rights-North America has come to include ending prolonged solitary confinement (as part of the interfaith campaign of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture), and when I take on any new issue, I spend a lot of time reading about it and thinking about it from a Jewish perspective. It can be a pretty depressing time, understanding personally what human rights violations look like and learning not to look away (a recent article in the Atlantic that included pictures of a prisoner, held in isolation, who had amputated his own fingers, is still haunting my dreams). Eventually, I get to redemption, to the great organizations that are fighting back, to the changes we’ve seen, and to understanding how the Jewish community can make a difference.

But right now, as I educate myself, read the stories and hear the testimony, I’m thinking a lot about being alone. In June, I went to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue of solitary confinement, and one of the people who spoke was a former death row inmate named Anthony Graves, who spent much of his 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit in solitary confinement. “Solitary confinement does one thing,” he said. “It breaks a man’s will to live, and he ends up deteriorating. He’s never the same person again.” He described life after solitary: “I am living amongst millions of people in the world today, but most of the time I feel alone.  I cry at night because of this feeling.  I just want to stop feeling this way, but I haven’t been able to.”

Jonah is on my mind. How it must have felt for him to be trapped alone in the fish, maybe not believing it was true at first. Maybe thinking he was strong enough to survive. That he could outlast God. But in the end, he wasn’t. When his “life was ebbing away,” he called out to God for deliverance so that he would not be alone. He was willing to do anything, even renege on his determination to avoid Nineveh, to have the possibility of companionship again. The Talmud says, “Either companionship or death.” Jonah knew this. And today, we should understand it as well.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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