Religion & Beliefs

Hard Keeping Kosher In Georgia (If You Ain’t A Felon)

This is not a new story by any means. In fact, I tried (since I happen to live near the prison) to get in and interview Ralph Benning myself over a year ago (to no avail) but I’ve been thinking … Read More

By / February 12, 2007

This is not a new story by any means. In fact, I tried (since I happen to live near the prison) to get in and interview Ralph Benning myself over a year ago (to no avail) but I’ve been thinking about it lately.

(Aside: some articles refer to the man in question as Ralph Harrison Benning. Why is it that when someone murders a man, people start using the murderers middle name? Is it because there are other Ralph Benning’s out there, and nobody wants to be confused with this particular—however Jewish—Ralph Benning?)

Anyway… the narrative runs like this:

Ralph Benning is an inmate at the Georgia State Prison in Hancock… Jewish by birth, he was raised in a Christian household, but elected to return to the Jewish faith while in prison. Correctional officials refused to provide him with kosher food, wear a yarmulke, or accommodate his religious practices in other ways….

So Benning decided to sue for his rights, and those rights were upheld in 2004. Prison inmates can now wear a yarmulke in the state of Georgia. They can leave the cheese off their burgers too… which is nice for them…

But I have two thoughts on this whole situation.

  1. I’m surprised to find myself a little bothered by the outcome of the case. (my civil liberty bone is bumping up against my separation of church and state bone) Although the yarmulke thing doesn’t bug me at all (I don’t really care what kind of headgear inmates wear as a rule) I’m not sure how I feel about accommodating the dietary needs of inmates for religious reasons. I wonder where we’ll draw the line. As someone who has worked for Kosher agencies, I know how tricky it can be to keep an institution in line regarding kashruth policies, and I cannot imagine the complications for the prison. What if Catholics turn down fish on Fridays, Hindus turn up their noses at beef, etc? Then there’s that tricky issue of WHAT we include as a religion…. What happens when suddenly a tree-goddess-worshipper wants a special diet of elderberries and tree sap? Or a Satanist requests 14 live mice each day? It just seems a slippery slope to me. “I’m a candy-god worshipper. I can only eat Necco wafers!”
  2. And then too, what about Shabbat? What about Jewish holidays? What about all the other laws? If we allow dietary observance, do we then obligate ourselves to accommodating ALL the Jewish laws, and then all the laws of every faith? This seems really dangerous to me? How can a prison commit to doing this? “My religion prohibits me from being raped anally, so the prison needs to keep Fancy Joe away from my backside!”

I mean, my gut instinct when I first heard about this case was “Right on, Benning!” But then I realized it was just because he happens to be a Jew. If he were some other faith I think I might be like, “Dude, you killed someone. What does your god have to say about that?”

Any thoughts, wise Jewcy readers?