Once We Were Slaves, Now We Are Free: Legal, Administrative, and Social Issues Raised by Passover Celebrations in Prison
Indiana University Mauer School of Law
February 15, 2013
Pepperdine Law Review, Forthcoming
Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 195
“Once we were slaves, now we are free” is a central line from the Passover Seder, a ritual meal celebrating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. At the Seder, participants, including small children, sit around the table with extended family and guests to read from the Haggadah, the traditional textual guide, retelling the story of the freedom from Pharaoh’s oppression. The Jewish story of liberation from bondage has inspired many oppressed people and the Passover Seder has become a symbol for the transition from slavery to freedom. The central food of the holiday is matzah, unleavened bread that was the food of the slaves; the bread of affliction was hence transformed into a symbol of freedom.
Because of its ties to food, family, and tradition, Passover is the most observed Jewish holiday. In prison, many Jewish inmates request access to a Passover Seder and to kosher-for-Passover food. This paper examines the phenomenon of Seders in prison from a legal, social, and cultural perspective.
Seders in prison raise First-Amendment issues about free exercise and explore how such rights are qualified by administrative and safety needs of jailers. The request for a Seder or for matzah and other kosher-for-Passover items implicates interesting legal questions and highlights the complexity, harshness, and sometimes arbitrariness of prison regulations. It further raises the question of the degree to which jailers must accommodate Jewish religious practices and how those accommodations must be balanced against prison safety and orderly administration. Because the kosher-for-Passover rations are generally of higher quality than regular prison fare, the prison must decide who is genuinely eligible, and who is just in it for the eats. In essence, prison administrators are asked to determine the thorny issue of who qualifies as a Jew.
Beyond formal legal issues of prisoners’ rights and administrative protocol is the deep personal and symbolic meaning that the Passover Seder has for those who are incarcerated. The irony of the situation – celebrating a ritual of freedom inside prison – is not lost on the prisoners. The power of the ceremony arises in part from that tension, as prisoners affirm their individual commitment to Judaism, and their collective affiliation with other Jews and all who are not free. They probe what or who constitutes the Pharaoh in their lives. Poignantly and insightfully, they look within their personal histories to find what has served as their oppressors – including bad choices, addictions, and deep-seated anger. They seek spiritual freedom even – especially – in prison, and the Passover Seder is an important vehicle for that search.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 64
Keywords: Passover, Prison, Religion, Jewish, Prisoner’s Rights, Free Expression, RLUIPA, Seder, KosherAccepted Paper Series
Date posted: June 8, 2011 ; Last revised: March 22, 2013
© 2013 Social Science Electronic Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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